"You have that Haveli glow!" my friend exclaimed as I sat down, satisfied and happily burdened with leftovers. He's been visiting the Tustin Indian restaurant for months now, always returning with raves about its 139 dishes, a towering buffet that steams from morning through night without rest, and its opulent interior, which looks like a snapshot from the time of the Raj. But every time he mentioned Haveli, I remained blasé. Haveli specializes in Northern Indian cuisine, and I've had enough curries, samosas and tandoori anything to last me five reincarnations.
Then I actually visited the place. Many northern Indian restaurants offer a couple of dishes; Haveli offers a sampling of almost all of the region's culinary traditions. You can chow down on chicken, fish, seafood, quail and lamb cooked in a tandoor; as a spicy curry, a sweet vindaloo or a scorching masala; on a karahi (a type of flat iron that caramelizes anything just the slightest bit); or combined with creamy spinach. Regardless of preparation, all the meats are intensely, subtly flavored: you can taste the interplay of cumin, black pepper, ginger and the various spices of Indian cuisine as they interact with one another like old friends.
Northern Indian food is heavy on the meats, but Haveli's vegetarian offerings are among the most extensive in a non-vegetarian Orange County eatery. Entrées run from the simple (achari aloo, spiced potato chunks) to the gluttonously complex—malai methi mateer, fenugreek and peas slathered with cream reveal their flavors at the back of your mouth. The rice is simple—basmati-flavored with mint or peas—but breads are impressive. Ignore the tried-and-true naan and parathas, and try the masala naan (a crispy flatbread topped with chiles, herbs and spices) or the quesadilla-like paneer kulcha. There's a small industry in pakoras, the catch-all name for anything battered and fried; Haveli fries onions, chiles, potatoes and exquisite chicken pakoras into golden puffy clouds laced with just enough spices to moisten your collar.
But Haveli's Indian-Chinese menu further proves that assimilation is not only inevitable, but also tasty. Interesting hybrids—chow mein, fried rice, something that looks like a stir-fry by way of Calcutta—combine India's dry heat with China's emphasis on sharp, stinging flavors. Take the chile chicken, long, juicy strips featuring the dry heat of the tandoor and the wallop of soy sauce, and enough chiles, ginger and garlic to please fans of Szechwan cooking: not quite Chinese, not quite Indian, but damn good and served in portions big enough to warrant two takeout boxes.
Say yes to whatever your eye falls upon. When you finish, your face will sport a glow the likes of which you haven't felt since you last fell in love.
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HAVELI, 13882 NEWPORT AVE., STE. G, TUSTIN, (714) 669-1011.