Hindustani Soul Bread

Photo by Tenaya HillsConsider naan, the Indian leavened bread that's the edible spork of the subcontinent, spongy with a bitter aftertaste. Most stateside Indian restaurants bake naan as an afterthought, providing it free under the assumption eaters only use it to scoop up any leftovers. But Ashoka Cuisine of India in Fountain Valley doesn't provide on-the-house naan. It's a bold move—most people won't order naan if it costs them anything—but Ashoka's Frisbee-sized naan is impressive enough to warrant the charge.

Never has bread been so uplifting as it is here. The Kabuli naan, for instance, is a minor meal masterpiece, stuffed with sweet nuts, raisins and cherry bits that clash with the bread's smoky shell with the intensity of an India-Pakistan cricket match. Stuffed paratha is buttery with steaming mashed potatoes inside and contains enough cholesterol to lower your heart rate about a dozen beats—call it Hindustani soul bread. Just as hearty is the keema naan: puffy with ground lamb, it's greasy and wonderful.

The nominal naan comes natural to Ashoka. The elegant-but-comfy eatery concentrates on Northern Indian cuisine, where the tandoor, the massive clay oven that permeates food with an intense, gritty magic, dominates the culinary imagination. Ashoka owns a particularly sturdy range from which the naan and other smoky platters emerge—chicken, shrimp, lamb and fish, all baked a nuclear red only a researcher could truly appreciate.

The Ashoka chefs also follow other traditional Northern Indian cooking premises such as subtly fiery vindaloo stews and spinach sautés, transposing the styles onto various non-tandoor cuts of meat. Chicken is elevated into something regal; shrimp jalfarezee's salty crustaceans wade in a fabulous curry. The rogan josh, moist lamb cubes simmered in a tart yogurt, is nirvana via stew. Ashoka's clientele loves these meat offerings so much the affordable lunchtime buffet frequently empties by 12:30, leaving trays holding non-meat entrées undisturbed.

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They don't know what they're missing. The vegetarian offerings are Ashoka's finest creations, unpretentious stews and purées that allow greenery to taste like greenery while pulsating with spices. Navratan korma houses a harvest of vegetables within its nutty sauce—cucumber, peas, corn, kidney beans, even the stray cauliflower. Two cheese offerings, the palak and kadai paneer, feature springy, intensely milky fried-cheese chunks studded among juicy spinach and tomato bits. Channa aloo masala possesses a peppery persona, its potatoes-with-chickpeas bulk powerful with garlic, the masala sauce smooth but with a hot wallop.

Ashoka's vegetarian expertise also arises in their appetizers. The samosas are fluffy fritters, surprisingly strong with peas and not at all oily. True revelations, though, are the snappy bhaji bites. Slices of onions and vegetables come coated with a spicy batter containing cumin, coriander and fresh green chile, deep-fried to a transcendent crispiness and presented in palm-sized servings. All of these appetizers—and don't forget the entrées!—should be touched with any of three complimentary chutneys: a tangy tamarind, a mint version more scalding than fresh, and an onion type so brutal it could double as bleach.

Desserts are mostly such tried-and-true standards as gulab jamun, fried dough balls bobbing in cardamom syrup, or kheer badami, one of the better varieties of rice pudding outside Oaxaca, but just okay here. Truly great is gajjar halva, carrot pudding that retains the earthy essence of its mother root but also a sweetness uncommon in the vegetable kingdom. Better yet is the rasmalai Bengali, a cheese block served chilled and sprinkled with crushed almonds that's probably the grandest thing that can claim a cow as its ultimate creator.

Ashoka Cuisine Of India, located at 18041 Magnolia St., Fountain Valley, is open Sun.-Thurs., 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. (714) 593-2968. Beer and wine. Dinner for two, $20-$40, food only. All major credit cards accepted.

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