Once at dinner at El Bulli, then considered the best restaurant in the world, we were served a course simply called “countries.” It consisted of three small porcelain spoons with a spoon-full of liquid in each. As you put the spoon in your month it was instantly clear what country it represented.
And so it is with Indian food. It may be hard to describe it, but you know it when you taste it.
When I started to research for this column, I realized I was biting off more than I could chew. We are talking here about a cuisine with a history of over 5,000 years, from about 20 very different geographic regions, each with its own version of Indian food.
That said, the few remaining Indian restaurants in Santa Monica have frightfully similar menus, and none seems to take advantage of the tremendous diversity of Indian regional cuisine. And while Indian food used to be very inexpensive, the prices have gone way up.
Rice and spice are the staples of Indian food. The next items commonly available include a surprising variety of beans and vegetables. Some regions’ cuisines utilize peanut oil, others prefer sesame oil – still other chefs use Ghee (clarified butter, available in local markets).
Some of the most popular spices are saffron, mint, chili peppers, black mustard seed, cumin, turmeric, fenugreek, coriander, and garlic. Many Indian chefs keep a mixture of their favorite spices, in their “custom mixed” proportions, mixed and ready to go. Some of these mixes have become popular and have special names, such as garam masala.
My three favorite Indian restaurants in Santa Monica are no longer here. I loved the buffet at Nawab, and I found the food at Gates of India superb. I just heard that they are reopening on 5th street in Santa Monica, so more on that later. Akbar on Wilshire was very good, but they closed their Santa Monica branch. They are still open in Marina del Rey.
Pradeeps Indian Cuisine, still located on Montana, is convenient, never too crowded, and is particularly good for vegetable dishes and a more healthy Indian cuisine. Pradeep offers specialties which are their own versions of traditional Indian dishes, which are nice to try for a change.
Perhaps the most popular Indian restaurant remaining in Santa Monica is Dharba. It’s been here the longest, with the same ownership by Manhar and Margaret for decades!
A nice feature is the outdoor patio, with heat lamps during the winter to make it cozy. But of course if you order your food spicy enough you won’t need the heat lamps. Dharba gets mixed reviews on the internet, but most are generally favorable.
While I like to complain about the lack of attention to the huge variety of regional Indian dishes I’ve read about, the fact is that I almost always order one of three dishes, either chicken tikka masala, a very hot Vindaloo, or a tandoori dish. The tandoori is served without sauce, but with a spice rub.
My favorite is the chicken tikka masala. I’m not alone here. It is considered the most popular dish in British restaurants and in the UK it is considered a British dish, not Indian. Just as the French claim that the Syrah grape originates in France, not Persia, the Brits claim that they invented this dish! Chicken tikka masala is made by marinating chicken, usually in turmeric powder and paprika to turn it orange, then cooking it in yogurt, cream, and tomato sauce. Coriander, cumin, and chili may be added. It is said that there are over 50 different common recipes for this dish.
The other Indian dish to which I am addicted is Vindaloo, and I usually select lamb Vindaloo. The word comes from a Portuguese meat stew made in a wine and garlic sauce. Indian cooks significantly changed the original Portuguese recipe by adding spices and potatoes (to reduce the expensive meat content). As is often the case, the dish is even better if kept overnight and eaten the next day when the spices have infused into the meat.
But at dinner at Dhaba the other night my wife and I tried a number of other dishes. The results were mixed. We had a lamb Korma that was excellent. The lamb was the right tender texture and the sauce was as good as it gets. Since my wife doesn’t like spicy foods I got some hot sauce on the side, and it made the dish just the way I like it.
But the garlic naan bread was not warm and fluffy, without much garlic flavor. The tandoori chicken was not very flavorful and somewhat overcooked. The sag paneer was quite good, although with a much smoother, lighter texture than I am used to. We had a potato and cauliflower dish that was excellent, and I noticed a number of the dinner customers were selecting vegetarian dishes like that. We finished with a delicious rice pudding. My wife had a very good lassie, and as always I had a Taj Mahal beer. The bill, with tip, was $60 (for two), high — but we ordered more than usual and took some home.
The sad fact is that Santa Monica is no longer home to any great Indian restaurant. The good news is that Dhaba is still here, and one can eat a perfectly good dinner there. Next time I’m having the chicken Tikka that I saw at the next table. It looked really good.
2104 Main St.
Santa Monica 90405
Pradeeps Indian Cuisine,
1405 Montana Ave., SM,
Merv Hecht, like many Harvard Law School graduates, went into the wine business after law. In 1988 he began writing restaurant reviews and books. His latest book is “The Instant Wine Connoisseur, 3d edition” available on Amazon. He currently works for several companies that source and distribute food and wine products internationally. Please send your comments to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
A selection of dishes at Dharba—all of these were excellent