squid-kun | Dec 22, 200207:28 AM     2

If any block could use a strong blast of spice-laden air, it's Sixth Street between Market and Mission. So Haveli, a newish Indian vegetarian restaurant, might be welcome even if the food were bad. As it happens, it can be quite good, and in a style we don't see a lot around here.

The best introduction to the menu is the thali lunch ($7.99, all you can eat): the two ``curries'' of the day plus soup, bread, rice and dessert. Your meal is ladled from a steam table onto a metal tray. Among the dishes I've had are a chickpea stew with cumin and tomato; dry curries with broccoli, one with potato, another with kidney beans and split mung beans; squash stewed until soft in a wet curry with chana dal; and potatoes with turmeric, warmed by a subdued chile glow.

While most of these dishes were delicious, a few were heavy, bland or tired in that steam table way. This is a modest lunch counter, open just three months, and it may not have hit its stride. But Haveli is worth checking out for a taste of Gujarati food, which is not common in San Francisco. This cuisine is often described as milder, sweeter, subtler than those of other regions of India. I don't have a lot of experience with it, but I do notice these qualities in the best dishes here.

The chile heat is indeed gentler than at Punjabi and Pakistani restaurants (e.g. Shalimar, Naan 'n' Curry and other hound favorites in town, which I also like) and way lower than in South Indian food. It's definitely present, just contained. (For determined chileheads there are shakers of cayenne on the tables, helpfully labeled ``Eat with caution.'') But at least as prominent as the heat is the sweetness. You'll taste it in at least one course on each day's thali -- often a soup or a dal. When it's right, the sweetness opens up and plays off the other flavors. It added a surprising dimension to a terrific yellow dal with mustard and cumin seeds, peanuts and scraps of thick, noodle-like dough.

Breads are fried or griddled on a stove at the front of the restaurant (no naan or other tandoor breads here). They alternate among plain roti, fried poori, cheese-stuffed rotla and the buttery, layered paratha (a bit sodden when I had it), and are sold by the pound as well. Sometimes there are also papad, the fried lentil-flour crisps.

Fried snacks include samosas, pakoras, kachori and batatawada. Kachori are morsels of dough the size of golf balls, stuffed with a tasty puree of dal, green peas and herbs, and sealed with a neat twist. For $2.99 you get three plus rice cooked with black beans and onion, along with a couple of good, fresh chutneys, one with cilantro and green chile, the other with red chile. This makes a fine light lunch by itself. Batatawada are cookie-like things made of potato and flavored with fennel, chile and other spices. They aren't necessarily from Gujarat, but the version here does have that sweet/savory interplay.

For dessert there's kheer, a rice pudding, and sheero, sweetened cooked wheat dotted with raisins; both are good, subtly spiced with cardamom. I've also seen jalebi at the counter and other sweets, not house-made, for sale in a cold case.

Oh, and there's entertainment, too: Bollywood musical numbers on video, each one a showstopper, though the show never does stop. A summary of the audiovisuals monitored between bites of one recent lunch:

Dashing men in red and dashing men in blue face off with menacing-looking dance steps under a high Indian sun -- like the Jets and the Sharks, if they were to call a truce and put on a nightclub revue. Just as things start heating up, huge billows of red cloth fill the screen. Now we're indoors, surrounded by men dressed as Miami gangsters. In the shadows, a beautiful woman waits. Enter a mystery man in a white suit, like Michael Jackson from an '80s video. He puts on the moves, and the group parts. Man and woman exit together as gangsters look on, helpless and bemused. Next we're high in the mountains. An Indian George Clooney cavorts on a grassy rise, arms wide, like Julie Andrews in ``The Sound of Music.'' His beloved appears, a vision in pale orange. They sing and dance, cocking their heads in unison. Now she's wearing aqua. Now red. Now they're back at sea level, both clad in pure white. There are fountains, rows and rows of them. Pyramids, too. Oh, she's falling! No, he catches her! And they kiss. The Indian sun sets over Sixth Street.

35 Sixth St. (at Stevenson), San Francisco
(415) 348-1381
Open 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday-Friday (thali lunch from 11:30)

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