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Seva Cuisine of India marries fuss and flavor

Subtlety is the name of the game at Seva Cuisine of India.

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Local restaurant owners don't necessarily relish a visit from health inspectors (who can close a venue down, after all, or impose stiff penalties), so I've often wondered what it would be like to eat in a restaurant that was actually owned by a health inspector.

Now I know.

I'd already dined at Seva Cuisine of India three times before learning that one of the restaurant's owners, Gurdev Deol, used to work as a Kansas City, Missouri, health inspector. "I visited over 1,500 restaurants during my employment there," he told me.

That helps explain why Seva Cuisine of India may be the cleanest new restaurant in the metro. It was the first thing I noticed about the dining room, a place so impeccably tidy that I half-expected one of my obsessive-compulsive aunts to emerge from the kitchen with a clean dishcloth in one hand and a bottle of Lysol in the other.

In fact, it's because of Deol's very rigid standards that Seva may be the only Indian restaurant in the city that doesn't serve samosas, the fried triangular pastries stuffed with meat or vegetables that are sold as street food in India and Pakistan.

"People do ask for them," he said, "but I tell customers that it's very difficult to cook them to the exact temperature for food safety and also to cool down to an appropriate temperature for eating properly."

And while other restaurants bring out the traditional Indian condiments — mint chutney, vivid red-onion chutney, the expected mahogany-colored tamarind sauce — in bowls or in a salad-dressing caddy, Deol will have none of that. His condiments come in chilled shot glasses: easily refilled, easily cleaned, no table clutter.

In one of the back booths, a trio of little girls played and giggled. These were the daughters of Gurdev and his wife, Kuldip, entertaining themselves while their parents worked. Seva (from the Hindi word meaning "to serve, wait upon, honor or worship") is a family affair, with members of both Gurdev's and Kuldip's families serving, cooking, or carrying dishes back to the kitchen.

The menu isn't quite as elaborate as those offered by Indian restaurants closer to midtown. The Seva menu is limited to four or so laminated pages with a plastic-spiral binding. There's no goat, only four tandoor-baked meats (including the biggest chicken "drumsticks" I've ever seen), and no beef, of course. There's no poori or chapati on the list of freshly baked breads. And though the place has a liquor license, this isn't where you're going to find a new favorite drink.

"A German riesling, a California merlot and a California chardonnay," announced Lou Jane Temple, novelist and former restaurateur, as she perused the wine-and-beer list. (The beer list is more varied, emphasizing a couple of Indian brews.) She took off her reading glasses and looked again at the dining room. She said she couldn't decide which was more appealing, the spotless space itself or the attractiveness of the serving staff. "They all look like actors in a Merchant and Ivory production," she said. She pondered her beverage options again ("I'm really not a mango-lassi kind of girl") and finally ordered the chardonnay. "Maybe this is a Merchant and Ivory film."

"It is a somewhat limited menu," Deol told me later. "But we're finding our way out here, getting to know which dishes are the most popular."

With a selection of entrées limited to the greatest hits of the conventional Indian culinary repertoire — curries, kormas, butter chicken, a quite spicy vindaloo or two — this popularity contest shouldn't be too complicated. It's not really a mysterious cuisine: The primary seasonings are garlic, onion, ginger and peppers, and most of the meat dishes are served in pretty little metal pots that give the food a certain all-American-stew feel. There's white rice, dotted with carrots and peas. If you changed some of the more exotic spices in these dishes and used heavy cream instead of yogurt, a plate of Bombay chicken could almost pass as a gravy-heavy Ozark fricassee.

Almost. Indian cooking is about those alluring, subtle blends of aromatic spices — turmeric, coriander, cumin and cardamom — that can make even lowbrow chicken taste like a delicacy from the court of King Prithviraj Chauhan. It's not what you have; it's how you use it.

Spiciness is not a quality smartly used among the samosa-free starters.The most familiar would be fried pakoras — those lentil-flour-battered "fritters" of onion, peppers and spinach. The Seva versions are pretty greasy, and they're too salty for me. There are a few soups, including a milky coconut that tastes like melted ice cream. You can have your fresh green salad with ranch dressing.

No, the stars here are the modestly priced main courses, including nine vegetable options. (You can never go wrong with a plate of coriander-scented paneer masala, made here with fluffy squares of house-made unripened cheese.) The Seva chefs use particularly tender cuts of lamb for dishes like the brawny combination of onions, peppers, purple cabbage and tomatoes called lamb kadahi. And the thick, pumpkin-colored sweet chili sauce that blankets the Bombay chicken practically begs to be lapped up with one of this restaurant's light, slightly scorched flatbreads.

There's a style of baked leavened naan made here that I don't recall seeing before on an Indian restaurant menu: Fresno naan, scattered with nuts and raisins. Another signature bread, Seva special naan, is stuffed with so many add-ons (roasted chopped chicken, raisins, mint, sesame seeds) that you could almost make a meal of it. (Too bad it was so dry when I tasted it.)

Back to the chicken for a moment, though, and those huge drumsticks. The violently red, tandoor-baked pieces are sumptuously tender, despite being big enough to wield as deadly weapons. For the more peaceful types, I recommend a plate of vegetable biryani — saffron rice generously blended with asparagus, peppers, cashews, peas, tomatoes, carrots and potato. The order I tried was excellent, though I never did see the side of cucumber-yogurt raita that was supposed to come with it.

The dessert du jour that night was a pretty, rose-water-scented bowl of rice pudding. It was light and appealing, but by then I'd tasted all the rice I could possibly handle in one meal.

"There's a frozen-yogurt store next to the restaurant," whispered Lou Jane. "Maybe they won't notice us sneaking in."

Don't be ridiculous, I chided her. Seva Cuisine of India is owned by a former health inspector. He notices everything.

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