I’ve never had a great relationship with Indian food. Like Americanized Chinese, the Indian food I was exposed to earlier in my life always seemed over-spiced, over-sauced, and just plain unappetizing. Granted, the Indian food I tried (or, more accurately, avoided) came from low-end take-out shops or buffet joints where the quality of the food isn’t nearly as important as the quantity. Now, less than a week after trying Akasha Richmond’s new Culver City gem Sāmbār, I’m starting to wonder how many excellent Indian meals I’ve deprived myself of over the years.
Chef-driven Indian has existed for years but it’s never been taken as seriously here in America as its European counterpart cuisines. London has Michelin-starred Indian kitchens but the US can’t say the same. In New York, Indian chefs like Floyd Cardoz and Hemant Mathur have more than earned their stripes by cooking the food of their homeland (although Cardoz ventures into a great many different cuisines), but we haven’t really seen the great breadth of Indian flavors championed by chefs who don’t share the dishes’ heritage. Essentially, Indian flavors haven’t been instilled into most chef’s repertoires the same way that, say, Asian flavors have (you’re using gochujang, Bryan Voltaggio? Of course you are). In Culver City, though, Sāmbār feels like a harbinger of things to come. The incredibly creative ways in which Richmond is interpreting modern Indian make it seem like chef-driven Indian could easily become the dominant trend of the next few years.
Sāmbār took over the old Ford’s Filling Station space and transformed it from the dark, meaty dungeon that it was into a bright, colorful room that earns the humming buzz of its patrons. The cocktail menu is unlike any I’ve ever seen with classics done Indian-style (like the “Blood Moon over Bengal,” a bourbon-based play on a mai tai) and Indian ingredients that inspire drinks of their own (I loved the yogurt/apricot flavors in the “Sacred Cow”). While booze is always a nice compliment to the spice-laden flavors of Indian food, the non-alcoholic options were fantastic, too. The chai-cherry lime ricky toed the line between refreshing and uplifting, while the house brewed chai served as the perfect comedown at the end of the meal.
As for that meal, all I can really say is wow. I have never in my life enjoyed Indian food as much as my meal at Sāmbār. The menu mixes Indian favorites like samosas and curries with “new wave masala” dishes that showcase the ingredients of India in more cross-cultural preparations. That means your pork shoulder vindaloo doesn’t arrive swimming in any sauce, but appears as an Indian-Italian immigrant, a porchetta by way of Mumbai with a full jacket of cracklin’ skin and the most amazing little pickled radish pods. Dressed up with malabar hot sauce and a sweet (but not cloying) mango chutney, you can easily picture yourself coming back every Sunday night to enjoy this dish. There are little snacks to start the meal — the sevpuri chaat are tiny bites full of flavor — and a tandoori section that gives you plump prawns grilled head-on and really nice kabobs of lamb sirloin that come with a Punjabi corn roti that you’ll swear is a tortilla. The naan here is jaundiced with turmeric and you’ll make your way through it way too quickly. Order several and you won’t feel that fear of having a non-naan table.
The bigger dishes work just as well as the smaller items, although it’s all meant to share. The cheese thali is the Indian cheese plate of your dreams with two different kinds of paneer and a yogurt cheese for scooping and smearing. The stuffed eggplant didn’t have the depth of flavor I was hoping for, but the “truck stop” goat curry more than makes up for it as an intensely satisfying stew that would feel just at home on a West Texas picnic table as it would in Bangalore. No matter what you choose, it’s worth tacking on the thalis at the bottom of the menu to add in some extra notes of spice or sweet to your meal. The pickled jalapenos were a wonderful surprise (and skewed much more towards the pickle than the heat) and the various chutneys provided perfect accents to a number of dishes.
If this was the Indian food I had first been treated to, I think my culinary worldview would be extremely different. Sāmbār is taking the flavors of all of those forgettable curry houses and running them through the fields of California farms and the results are astounding. It’s not just happening in Culver City, though. In New York, Babu Ji just opened (by way of Melbourne, Australia) and happily carries the farm-to-table Indian mantel by naming farmers on their menu just like New American restaurants are wont to do. Pub Royale started serving its chef-driven gastropub Indian in Chicago barely two months ago. Across the country, Indian fare is getting full kitchen makeovers and it’s about time. I’m just lucky that one of the epicenters of the new wave happens to be walking distance from my house.
9531 Culver Blvd.
Culver City, CA 90232