Sunday, February 26, 2012

Dhaba Cuisine of India, Santa Monica, Restaurant Review

Dhaba offers healthier alternatives to Indian dishes. With no cream, butter, or ghee, the restaurant serves up Indian fare which, while not authentic, offer its own unique strengths.

7 out of 10 Peppers = Spicy

Dhaba isn't an Indian restaurant for Indians. And that's not a bad thing. It may even be brilliant.

It's Indian food for Californians. Which, yes, of course, includes plenty of Indians/Indian-Americans like myself, and as long as you don't expect the dishes to be authentic renditions of the ones on the subcontinent, you'll leave satisfied. Dhaba's dishes are lighter and healthier than their authentic counterparts. There's no ghee, butter, or cream to be found (with the sole exception of the Vegetable Korma, which contains cream). It even has hummus on the menu (not Indian, but a healthy appetizer that works well with Indian cuisine).

It's been open and in the same location for 40 years in Santa Monica. Impressive.

THE SETTING

The peach color scheme includes draped fabrics and wall hangings. There's a cute outdoor patio area too. On this Saturday night, we -- Nick, plus our friends Shalini and Puran -- worried it might be too cold though, so we sat inside.

It soon became packed inside. This despite the fact that there are many other restaurants located on the same street.

We experienced super fast service, even with an almost-full restaurant. It made me wonder if the service accommodates the fact that many of its patrons are parked at ticking meters. (Parking sucks, by the way. We couldn't find an open meter and wound up valeting. Then the valet was nowhere to be found for way too long when we were ready to leave. I literally had to call the number on the "valet" sign, at which point he came running down the street.)

THE FOOD

There's one aspect of the food that I absolutely love: the restaurant's daily specials come directly from the farmers' market.

In general, at many restaurants I avoid the specials, because I have this fear (occasionally justified) that the reason something is so "special" is because it's about to go bad. But here, I'd encourage you to order whatever is on special.

This farmers' market fresh quality extends to many of the dishes.

What I don't like is that what is lost with the ghee, butter, and cream isn't necessarily made up in other ways. Several of the dishes tasted bland or just plain boring.

The Samosas are a solid middle-of-the-road size and feature a crispy outer layer, but we all agreed that the samosas simply aren't flavored correctly (at least, not authentically, and there's no unhealthy ingredients involved in doing that). None of us liked these.

I simply had to know what Chicken Tikka Masala tastes like without cream. It's a noble effort and, to be honest, the masala itself (where the cream typically resides) isn't bad. The problem I had is with the chicken itself. It was tough. My suspicion is the restaurant used breast meat, not a good substitute for tender thighs. Breast meat also doesn't offer the flavor that chicken thighs typically lend to a dish.

The Channa Masala, chickpeas in a tomato and onion curry with ginger, was terrific. The cilantro tasted so fresh it was like I was tasting cilantro for the first time. I kept taking seconds and thirds of this dish, until I finally finished it off.

The Tandoori Shrimp are also well done. In addition to the shrimp being well flavored, the bell peppers served with it were flavored as well. I thought the seasoning was a bit heavy on the salt, but no one else did. The shrimps were large, which I liked. I hate ordering a shrimp dish then playing "Where's Waldo?" with the shrimp.

The Aloo Methi is flavored well. I thought including some seeds (fennel, etc.) in the presentation would have made it better.

We ordered Basmati Rice, which is $3. Other options here include Brown Rice ($3), Vegetable Biryani ($6), Chicken Biryani ($8), and Lamb Biryani ($10).

We also ordered some Plain Naan. The restaurant also offers onion naan and garlic naan, plus roti.

Shalini ordered Chai. It comes out in a cute little kettle, which you then pour into your teacup. At first, Shalini was concerned that it didn't come with any sugar or milk, but after tasting it, she said it was already perfectly flavored.

The restaurant hand makes several ice creams, and Nick and I opted for the mango. It's great. I'm just now thinking that I should have asked the server if cream is used in the ice cream cause I'm not sure how that works otherwise.

I'd go to Dhaba again, but not if I have a craving for Indian food. I'd go if I'm looking for something light and then stick with dishes whose recipes don't originally call for cream or much butter anyway.

Dhaba Cuisine of India, 2104 Main St. Santa Monica 90405. (310) 399-9452.

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Thursday, February 16, 2012

Happy Holi Colorful Indian Sweets Recipe

 Holi, the South Asian festival of colors, is celebrated in a big way in Los Angeles, and this fun project will make your table as festive as your dye-smudged face.

Ingredients:
store-bought (or homemade) rasgullas or other white Indian sweet (I used Bikano brand from All Indian Sweets & Snacks)

various colors of liquid food coloring (I used yellow, red, blue, and green by McCormick, but Indian stores sometimes have natural food dyes that would probably work well)

clear drinkable alcohol (I used orange rum; unflavored vodka would probably be ideal)

You'll Also Need:
disposable gloves, bowls or glasses to put the food coloring in, several different spoons to stir with, a tea strainer or other sieve, cheesecloth cut into several small pieces

Step-by-Step:
1. Slip on the disposable gloves to protect your nails and fingers from being dyed (though most food coloring does easily wash off). Take your bowls or glasses and pour a splash of clear drinkable alcohol into each. Pour several drops of one color of food coloring into each bowl. Stir with a spoon so the color is distributed evenly, keeping different spoons separate for the different food colors. (The alcohol is used so the food coloring dries quickly, since alcohol evaporates faster than water. The small amount doesn't really affect the taste of the sweets. However, if you're doing this with kids, substitute water. I haven't tried it yet, but I'd imagine that water should work fine too.)
2. Set the tea strainer or other sieve on top of a glass, then put a rasgulla on top. This is just to separate as much "ras" from the "gulla" (AKA get rid of the syrup) as possible, so that in addition to the food coloring mess potential you don't get the potential of a sticky sugary mess.
3. Dip one of the cheesecloth pieces into your first color (generally the lightest color works best, like a yellow), then dab it onto the rasgulla in one to three places.
4. Using the same method as in Step 3, add one to three more colors to each rasgulla. (Keep each piece of cheesecloth exclusive to each color.) I personally liked it best when I left small gaps where the rasgulla was still plain (undyed), which also kept the colors from running together. Try experimenting with different base colors and different accent colors. If you want the entire rasgulla to start as a solid color, roll it around in whatever you want your base color to be first, then use the cheesecloth to add accents.
5. Pour the syrup over it and serve.

Servings vary, depending on how many sweets you start with -- I'd estimate two per person.

The AHH Factor: I had great visions of how I was going to dye these sweets. I Googled countless phrases like "best Easter egg designs" and "patterned Easter eggs." Visions of purple polka-dotted rasgullas and argyle ones worthy of a J. Crew catalog were dancing in my head. Was it possible to wrap rubber bands around a rasgulla and tie-dye it?

Mind you, this was before I actually opened a bottle of food coloring and attempted to dye anything. It was before I even had a bottle of food coloring to experiment with (a huge thanks to my friend Nicole for the food coloring, by the way!). Then the more I started searching and the more elaborate designs I saw, coupled with the fact that many Easter eggs aren't actually edible, I got a little shaky. Creativity may be my strong suit, but art and drawing, well, let's just say that even my polka dots would somehow end up as squares.

Then I had an epiphany: Holi isn't about perfect patterns of color. It's about the excitement of spring and flinging colors onto unsuspecting strangers in happiness. It's about smudges and smears and streaks that are without rhyme or reason. That's why I ultimately decided on simply smudging the colors on. I imagine that these rasgullas are what you look like after attending a Holi celebration, with color blobs all over your white shirt. Happy holi, everyone!

P.S. If you want to celebrate Holi in Los Angeles, there are two celebrations where you actually get to throw dye on people (on other participants, not on random people).

March 3: Association for India's Development (AID)'s Holi on the Beach 2012, Will Rogers State Beach, Pacific Palisades, Calif.  More info at http://www.aidla-events.org/holionthebeach.
March 10: Network of Indian Professional's (NETIP) Holi Re 2012: A Riot of Colors, Will Rogers State Beach, Pacific Palisades, Calif. More info at http://www.membership.netip.org/assnfe/Ev.asp?ID=137

saagAHH just launched Events calendar where you can find out about other upcoming events of interest to the South Asian community in Southern California. Click on the Events tab to find other fun events to go to this year.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

World Curry, San Diego, Restaurant Review

World Curry offers Indian curries and so much more. With varied curries from countries including Thailand and Singapore, this small restaurant in San Diego's Pacific Beach offers a take on curried cuisine that's worth a taste.
7 out of 10 Peppers = Spicy

World Curry offers a smorgasbord of curry dishes from all over the globe. You can visit India with some Chicken Kheema while your dining companion delves into some Panang Curry from Thailand. It's something for everyone -- well, everyone who loves curry anyway (which should be a prerequisite for all of your friends, right?).

This restaurant review opportunity sort of fell into my lap when we went to visit some of Nick's friends in San Diego. We were already planning to hit Tamarind of London on the way back to L.A., so I wasn't stressing about visiting an Indian restaurant while in San Diego. But when Nick's friends suggested this place on their own, well, that just shows that Nick has great taste in friends!

THE SETTING

The decor is as varied as the food. There are dragons and elephants and Buddhist artwork all mixed into the eclectic space. It's casual and has the charm of a hole-in-the-wall. We didn't have any trouble finding street parking out front, but from previous experiences in Pacific Beach, on most nights parking is probably much more difficult to find. 

THE FOOD

Unlike many Asian restaurants, this one serves food entree style, not family style, with each plate coming with its own mound of rice. To order, you choose your heat level, then your protein (chicken, tofu, etc.), and your rice (jasmine or brown, which costs $0.50 extra). We ordered a bunch of dishes and ate them family style anyway, by passing the plates around. We ordered a mix of sweet and savory curries.

Sticking to the world theme, the restaurant offers beers from the same countries that the food is inspired by, including Japan, India, and Singapore. It was out of the two Indian beers on its menu this night but did manage to come up with a KingFisher.

Each entree came with a Japanese-style salad, which I usually enjoy, but these were overpowered by the flavor of the dressing.

I opted for what many people think of as an Indian curry, but here it was classified as from the U.K. Legend has it that Chicken Tikka Masala was created when a chef in the U.K. added tomato soup to tandoori chicken to satisfy a customer, thus creating the hybrid dish.


I liked that the restaurant offers seasonal curries, in this case Pumpkin Curry for fall. I still need to come up with my own recipe for this, as I love the idea of getting a big serving of fiber and vegetables built into a curry dish.


The vegetable Panang Curry (we got it medium) was the best of the curries. It was also the most distinctive. I do absolutely love Thai food though, so I may be biased. Once when I had been struggling with an angry stomach for a few days, the day I finally felt better was after we went out to eat Thai food.

The Singapore Vegetable Curry was my least favorite. I loved that it had so many veggies, but it was pretty bland otherwise.

Nick ordered the Golden Curry Shrimp. To be honest, at this point all of the curries were sort of blending together on my palette, so I don't have any specific commentary on this one.

I enjoyed my meal with a Lassi Frappe. I'm really not sure this was any different than a regular Mango Lassi, but maybe World Curry just wanted to give it a fancy fusion name. I asked the server what it was made of to see if that cleared it up, but it didn't (ingredients: milk, ice, mango, yogurt). It was a large size and was yummy, with some mango strands at the bottom that were especially great.

As a nod to India, the restaurant offers various naan options. We ordered a plain and a garlic.

Everyone agreed that the restaurant offers a good value, with the regular portion of most entrees costing about $8 (the large portion for most is about $10). The Peppers consensus was between a 7 and an 8 and, since I don't give out half-Peppers (I figure that would just open up a hole other can of worms), I gave it a 7 because it's about two months later now and World Curry just isn't sticking in my memory as being terrific enough to break that 8 Pepper threshold. I do love the concept though and a 7 is still solidly Spicy on my scale! I love the idea that you can go there for lunch for a whole week and not have to eat food from the same country twice.

World Curry, 1433 Garnet Ave., San Diego 92109 (neighborhood: Pacific Beach). (858) 270-4455.

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