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Moghul for Muggles

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I dove into the Internet to find the origins of Mugal Restaurant's name, and emerged, too many hours later, spitting up world history:

It wasn't hard to figure out that Mugal = Moghul, the Islamic empire that dominated Northern India for almost three hundred years. After all, Mugal the restaurant advertises that it serves Pakistani as well as Indian food. But did you know that Moghul = Mongol? Back in the early 1500s, Babur the Tiger, a poor but ambitious descendant of Genghis Khan, led his army from Turkistan into Kabul, and over the next twenty years slaughtered his way south into Hindustan. His grandson Akbar stabilized the new empire, establishing a dynasty that stayed in power until the Brits put them out of business.

Much as the Russian czars looked to the French for their courtly customs, Akbar's descendants took their cues from the Persians, adopting Persian as the court language and importing Persian manners and foods -- exotics like apricots, pistachios, and rosewater. When the Persian cuisine intermingled with the native one, pilafs, garlic-and-ginger-based spice mixtures, and kabobs reached their pinnacle of sophistication, while pork (a Muslim no-no) and beef (same for the Hindus) slid into disfavor. Five hundred years later, what you now eat in Delhi, Lucknow, and Karachi is directly descended from Muglai (Moghul) haute cuisine.

Now, the reason we think magenta chicken kabobs and puffy white naan -- watered-down Moghul specialties cooked in the tandoor, a vertical clay oven they introduced to India -- are the alpha and the omega of Indian cuisine is because they arrived here first. According to Peter and Colleen Grove, authors of Curry, Spice, and Everything Nice, tandoori restaurants became trendy in Delhi only in the late 1940s, and made it over to Britain and the States by the 1960s. Just as the Cantonese got stuck making chicken chow mein and sweet-and-sour pork -- bastardized versions of northern Chinese food -- for Americans, almost every new Indian restaurant here has to install a tandoor to satisfy our tastes.

The owners of Mugal actually come from Moghul territory -- Delhi, in fact. Owner Paramjit Singh, who runs the restaurant with his family, has owned eleven restaurants over the years, most recently Sabena in downtown Oakland and Shan Indian Cuisine on San Pablo. Shan closed last year, so he opened Mugal four months ago as a "retirement project."

You won't find much to differentiate Mugal from the other Northern Indian restaurants around Berkeley, either on the menu or on the plate. Its tiny menu lists saag (spinach), gobhi (cauliflower), bhindi (okra), and cholay or chana (chickpeas), each available with lamb or chicken, or by itself. A few subtle touches align the food with Pakistan: The halal lamb, slaughtered according to Islamic law, and a few of the curries start Northern-style, with sautéed garlic, ginger, onions, and tomatoes.

But Mugal is a heck of a lot cuter and cleaner than your average six-dollar curry joint. The Singhs can thank the previous owner for that. Le Comptoir Rouge may not have survived its first year in business, but the owners of the Gallic pizza-sandwich shop sure gussied up their minuscule space. Singh thankfully kept Le Comptoir's buttery walls and blond-wood tables (all six or seven of them), and the pizza oven now roasts tandoori kabobs and onion kulchas.

The charm, however, didn't extend to the service. Our waitress looked as if she'd scowled once too often and her face had frozen that way. Was she miserable to be there or just brusque by nature? My crack team of armchair psychoanalysts couldn't tell. She'd dart out to the table, deliver whatever she had to, and then retreat behind the skirts of a pair of plump matrons helming the stoves. Occasionally one of the two would lean over the counter and smile at us benevolently. Their silent, motherly welcome helped warm up the room as much as the cups of steaming, sweet (and free) chai we drank.

Every entrée at Mugal comes with rice, dal, and a mini salad, delivered on partitioned plates. On my first visit, the kitchen sent out each entrée on these pre-dressed plates, despite the fact that my table of four was sharing five dishes. We spent a good ten minutes juggling plates before we all had put together the mix of dishes we wanted. By my second visit several weeks later, the owners had figured out a better system, distributing a plate of sides to each person and serving the main courses in stainless steel bowls.

On both visits, the legumes and rice hooked me in. One night's chana masala (chickpea curry) was stewed in a light, almost brothy gravy reddened with tomatoes. On the second night, yellow split lentils had been simmered with ginger, turmeric, and mustard seeds until they became a creamy, flavorful porridge. And the grains of cumin-studded basmati rice were perfectly cooked, distinct but not too chewy.

The rest of the food didn't achieve such consistency. On the plus side, the pizza oven-turned-tandoor kicked out some fierce chicken tikka, moist chicken-breast chunks swathed in spices, and crackling-bottomed breads. An appetizer seekh kabob, two patties of ground lamb mixed with pureed chickpeas, went off like a spice bomb in the mouth. The bhindi masala had cooked down in a vibrant red oil until the flavors of the masala thankfully eclipsed the okra's gummy, earthy flavor. And in the excellent prawn pepper masala, the sweetness of pureed red bell peppers called out the natural sweetness of the tender prawns, until both were overtaken by a slow-building crescendo of chiles and spices.

The minuses were equally significant, however. Some of the pieces of tandoori fish (served bone in and skin on) came out of the oven melting off the bone, but others were charred and tough. Saag paneer, that old standby, tasted like an old standby, something to add some greens to your diet. Many of the spice blends in the other curries -- the chicken cholay, say, and the lamb kadhi -- had cooked down so long that they'd lost all flair, tasting muddy, oily, and indistinguishable from one another.

I don't know if we ordered well the first night and poorly the next, but my first group of companions left the restaurant telling me they hadn't had such hearty, satisfying Indian food in years, and the second group dismissed the meal with a shrug. "Well, it tastes like the kind of food you'd have in an Indian home," suggested my friend Sarah, who grew up in Bombay. "Some dishes are good, some aren't. That's why the dal is so great -- it's something the women of the household would make every day." Guess which group she was in.

If you're looking for the glories of Muglai cuisine, you may want to search elsewhere (say, up the block at Kabana). Mugal is more like the Indian equivalent of a roadside diner. The food is heartfelt and sometimes ho-hum, and you have to become a regular to know what to order, but when the ladies in the kitchen beam out over the counter at you, it feels a little like home.

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