I’ve eaten in dozens of Indian restaurants here in Los Angeles and around the world. The best were in London. Some were in India itself. But none of them had the same kind of menu as the new Tumbi restaurant that has opened in the old Gate of India space at 115 Santa Monica Blvd. (Gate of India has reopened as Rita’s Gate of India on 5th street.)
India is a very large, diverse country. It is so diverse that there are 22 distinct languages spoken. But until now, all of the Indian restaurant that I’ve eaten in served—or at least in my ignorance I ordered—northern Indian food. I never thought about the likelihood of diverse, regional food in India.
So when I took my friend Surj Soni, one of the leading litigation lawyers in Los Angeles, joined me for lunch at Tumbi, and he explained Indian food to me, I learned a lot. And we were aided by chef Imran Ali (that’s “father of lion king” in Arabic) who joined us for lunch. Surj and Imran immediately bonded as both traced their family lineage to Pakistan.
The Indian food that I’ve been enjoying over the years turns out to be primarily from the north of India, or the Punjabi region, where the weather can be cold and severe and rich, spicy foods predominate. But there is a very different culture in the South, which is more tropical, and somewhat influenced by Goa—-which in turn was influence by Portuguese culture and cuisine.
I’ve eaten at Tumbi three times, and each time I had a different experience. This time we started with three dishes from the “street food” part of the menu. Pani Puri turned out to be little pastry cups made from chick peas, with a hole in the top. They were served with timbals of tamarin flavored liquid. The trick was to pour the liquid into the pastry shell and pop it in your mouth. This was not the highlight of culinary experience for me, but Surj says sometimes they add a bit of vodka to the liquid, and that I might find more interesting.
The second street food was idli sambar. This is a rice patty in a lentil broth with coconut and tomato chutney. Again, something very interesting and like nothing I’ve had before. Finally came the channa with Amritsari kulcha. This looked a lot like a small pizza, but had a very different texture and flavor. I liked it better than pizza and probably ate more than my share of it. It was made from potato instead of flour, so it had a soft texture, and it was served with chickpea and yogurt dips.
I was pretty full by now. I passed on any of the UTTAPAM dishes, which are very popular street food in India. In a previous lunch I had the lamb keema, a thick crepe made from lentils served with ground lamb on top. It reminded me a bit of the Ethiopian dishes with beef stew served over a large crepe. In a previous dinner my two sons and I shared the butter chicken and Goan prawn masala, more like the traditional Indian food I am accustomed to, although I found the prawn masala the best dish of this type I’ve ever had. And I had also previously had the Tiffin lunch box, which I think is the best thing on the menu. This is a bit like a Japanese bento box, with a variety of tastes in compartments of a lunch box. What I remember the most was the delicious, slightly spicy soup, and the rich butter chicken.
So to continue my education, Surj and Imran began a discussion of Frankies, an Indian street wrap dish. Surj thought the name came from the British abbreviation for frankfurter, from the times of British occupation. Imran had a different history of the name. Both agreed that this was a big seller on the streets of Southern India, that I shouldn’t miss it. So we shared the Lamb Kabob, which turned out to be a bit like a Mexican burrito, but with very different flavors. One major difference between this meal and what I typically have in Indian restaurants was that none of the dishes had any hot spiciness. While there were strong flavors, they were not spicy hot nor made from hot peppers.
Now the biggest surprise of all for me. I’ve never had a great dessert at an Indian restaurant. The best I’d ever had before was just a liquid rice pudding at Nawab. But under the Chef’s tutelage we ordered the carrot halwas and the Malai Kulfi Falooda. Both Surj and the Chef said to ignore the chocolate offering as not really Indian. The Falooda was a delicious kind of mixture of a lot of my favorite tastes over vermicelli noodles: almonds, cashew, pistachio. Good, but not great. The Carrot HALWA was GREAT—one of the best desserts ever. Surj was surprised to see it on the menu, because he said it was too complicated and too time consuming to make in a restaurant, and he was surprised to see it. The Chef beamed in appreciation and agreed that it took six hours to make and as far as he knows his is the only restaurant that has it on the menu! Shaved carrots are boiled for a long time, then mixed with lots of butter, saffron, spices, honey, and sugar, then molded into a pyramid. It was so delicious that I keep dreaming about it.
The bottom line is that this restaurant offers a whole new cuisine for Santa Monica, great variety, excellent preparation, and delicious offerings. I think the dinner menu is slightly more toward the gourmet end of the spectrum, but there is enough here at lunch or dinner to eat well and differently.
In passing I note that there is a terrific selection of beer and the bartenders are very good at describing them. That is, perhaps a great feature of this restaurant—-you can have an excellent glass or two of beer with a small snack of Indian street food. That’s a great combination for a quick lunch.
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” and it is available on Amazon. He currently works for several companies that source and distribute food and wine products internationally. Please send your comments to: email@example.com.