Sunday, April 10, 2011

Restaurant: Gill's Indian Restaurant, Los Angeles

 Surprisingly located inside a hotel, the quality and choice of food at Gill's Indian Restaurant is also surprising -- in a good way.

 
8 out of 10 Peppers = Spicy
 
The Details: When searching for a hotel venue for our wedding, I was surprised by one thing: even though many hotels are owned by Indians, almost none of them have an in-house chef who can make Indian cuisine. Instead, for Indian weddings, the catering has to be contracted to an outside caterer (if the hotel even lets you do that, sometimes the smaller ones won't), which is frequently more expensive than using the in-house chef and definitely more of a pain in the butt.

I certainly never expected to find an Indian restaurant inside a hotel. (The closest thing I'd seen was Bombay Tandoori & Banquet, which is next to a hotel.) But Gill's Indian Restaurant is indeed inside of the Stillwell Hotel in downtown Los Angeles. Sadly, even if we hadn't booked our venue already, I still wouldn't want it here. The restaurant itself is great, but the hotel is sketchy. When I needed to use the bathroom, I was given a key to the one in the hotel lobby. That's never a good sign. Also not a good sign is the fact that I think I walked by a homeless guy to use it.

The restaurant serves traditional Indian food, but the menu includes unique takes on certain items. Of course, to me that meant I had try items I'd never seen before. (Food is my only risk-taking outlet, really. And it does occasionally backfire. In those instances I use my GPS to find a drive-through window on the way home.)

I don't get to downtown Los Angeles more than about once every few months, but I was happy to make this trip because a good friend from high school, Katie, was in town from her home in Nashville on business. Katie was totally game to eat anything on the menu, which is awesome, and it was great to have a little reunion.

As at most Indian restaurants, the Papadum is complimentary, and that is the case at Gill's too.The unusual thing is they had a different accompaniment from the standard chutneys. This dipping sauce was more like a spicy ketchup. It was interesting, though I still opted to eat most of my papadum plain, which is my typical preference anyway.

The first unique item I opted for was the Masala Lassi, which I think some other restaurants do offer but usually under the name of Salted Lassi, Original Lassi, or just Lassi. I knew I probably wouldn't like it -- I tend to only like sweet lassis -- but I was wondering if the restaurant used unusual spices to make its "masala" since it specifically mentioned "masala" in the name. But that wasn't really the case. It tasted like Indian yogurt to me; I couldn't taste any spices. Katie commented that it tasted like buttermilk. It was super frothy (as shown in the right photo). The restaurant also offers a Rose Lassi and a Mango Lassi (what I usually order). Katie ordered a Shiraz from California from the wine list and noted that the wine menu could be improved with more California-grown wine selections.

The "pork" section of the menu caught my eye. Not because I'm a huge pork fan (though I do like it), but because I've never seen pork on an Indian menu before. Gill's offers Pork Curry, Pork Korma, Pork Saag, Pork Vindaloo, Pork Karahi, and Pork Masala. The server says the restaurant has a demand for both pork and beef items (also unusual, though not as much so), and he said if I like pork, he'd recommend it. I opted for the Pork Saag (pork cooked in creamed spinach), because I figured if the pork was too weird I'd likely at least eat the spinach. Katie and I both really liked this dish. Katie noted that the spinach was nice and creamy, and I appreciated that the pork was cooked just the right amount. It wasn't too tough, and it really didn't stick out as "unusual" while we were eating it.

Katie thought the Shrimp Coconut sounded good, and she was definitely right about that. It was a curry dish made with shrimp marinated in coconut milk with tomatoes and spiced with fenugreek and saffron. She's braver than I am and got it "medium" not "mild," but even with the extra spice it was so tasty that I couldn't stop eating it.

Rice must be ordered separately, so we got the standard white basmati rice for $2.95, which was enough for both of us.

Despite the sketch factor of the hotel, the atmosphere in the restaurant was nice. There were Bollywood music videos playing on the TV, which is always a fun touch. I wouldn't take a first date here, but other than that it's a solid choice for lunch or dinner. Based on the restaurant's website, it has a busy take-out business, and you can place your order online. The lunch buffet (weekdays only, 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.) is only $7.95 plus tax, which is one of the least expensive Indian buffets I've seen in Los Angeles.

For parking, I parked in a paid garage a block away (there are some street spots that might not be metered at night, but they were all full), but we noticed on the way out that there's a small lot right next to the restaurant that says it validates for Gill's. So I'd recommend parking there instead -- it's on the same side of the street as the hotel and is a small surface lot.

What's your favorite downtown Los Angeles Indian food find?

Gill's Indian Restaurant, 838 S. Grand Ave. (inside the Stillwell Hotel), Los Angeles 90017. (213) 623-1050.

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