Tanzore, though, the new contemporary Indian restaurant on La Cienega's Restaurant Row, bursts onto the scene with a highly individual, stylized look. Walking into the sprawling space feels like stepping off a flight to Bombay straight into a happening cocktail lounge crowded with fashionably dressed jet-setters. No beige and black for this place: The intense, saturated colors -- cinnamon, saffron, turmeric -- are straight out of an Indian spice box. Low turquoise sofas line the walls with poufs covered in bright silks for more seating. As a waiter takes orders for suitably exotic cocktails, a Bollywood dance number inspired by the routines in the film "Grease" plays on a flat-screen monitor.
Tanzore is fun and exotic without getting folkloric. The menu, too, is updated Indian fare, based on fresh, local ingredients, and designed to have a distinct California-Indian edge. Instead of serving everything family style, dishes here are individually plated on Villeroy & Boch china in the latest shapes. The wine list features a core list of 100 wines chosen to play well with the food. And a late-night bar menu keeps things going until closing time. The result is a truly trendy Indian restaurant from the Sood family, which owns the Gaylord India chain. In fact Tanzore occupies the former Gaylord space.
In its heyday, Gaylord broke out of the typical Indian restaurant mold with a lavish high-end setting and more elaborate menus. Tanzore ups the ante with a cutting-edge décor and updated cuisine based on the same quality ingredients you'd find in Spago's or Campanile's kitchens. Somehow, though, it doesn't always add up to a compelling experience. In trying so hard to make Indian food accessible to a broader audience, the chefs lose some of the cuisine's soul.
And in telling guests about the menu, the management tends to lay it on as thick as evangelists. Servers ask if you've ever dined at Tanzore before, and if the answer is no, they launch into a highly scripted speech. They'll explain that Tanzore's kitchen serves contemporary Indian cuisine and by way of an example tell you they've taken the spice out. What? By spice, they mean the fire power, which is (presumably) what scares people away from the marvelous and intricate cooking of this vast country. Despite its reputation, Indian cuisine is highly spiced but not always fiery. Here, the cooks have simply toned it down without dispensing with the numerous and complex spices -- cardamom, turmeric, coriander, cumin -- that give Indian cuisine its intoxicating flavor profile and then cross-referenced it with California cuisine.
Velvet lamb kebabs
SOME of the crossover dishes work, but others are less successful, sometimes due to concept, other times to flawed execution. I liked seared yellowfin tuna revved up with toasted coriander and set on a soothing avocado raita that's really an unemphatic guacamole. Velvet lamb kebab is delicious too, minced lamb streaked with paprika and cumin wrapped around a skewer and grilled. But what's with the mashed potatoes? It brings back the dark ages of tall food all too vividly when practically everything was served on top of mashed spuds. Seared scallop salad could have come from any trendy restaurant. It's a familiar California idiom, some kind of seafood with avocado, orange or grapefruit segments, hearts of palm and salad greens tossed in a vinaigrette, in this case a walloping vodka-citrus one. This has got to be the dish for someone leery of trying anything that sounds even vaguely Indian. Why reinforce the clichés of California cuisine?
Other appetizers, though, are more recognizably Indian, such as tandoori tiger prawns or the trio of chicken tikka, each marinated in a different herb and spice combination. Wait a minute: One of them is cheddar and pink peppercorns. Why cheddar when Indian cuisine has its own paneer cheese? It's crazy, and also not very good. Stick with the more traditional offerings, such as the samosa plate that comes with spiced potatoes, a spinach and asparagus purée and delectable, gently spiced samosas stuffed with potatoes and peas.
Order a basket of the fresh flatbreads with a trio of house-made chutneys. Yeasty and blistered from the oven, the nan is terrific. The flaky round paratha is wonderful too. You can also order kulcha stuffed with cheddar and Philadelphia cream cheese. But why would you want to? Does Philadelphia cream cheese have some kind of mysterious cachet in India?
Be sure to order some raita made with luscious thick yogurt laced with fresh mint and cucumber. You'll want some chutneys and pickles too. Only the pickles have any real fire power. With the mint chutney and pickles, I could live on those breads. And have the bread bill to prove it.
Like the appetizers, entrees are plated individually rather than family style. But sharing is so ingrained in the Indian restaurant experience that everyone I've brought to Tanzore insists on passing plates anyway. I understand the chefs' impulse to showcase the dishes and gain more respect for Indian cuisine. I'm not entirely convinced this is the way.
Tandoori lamb chops are a good choice. Just remember that, unless you specifically ask for them to be cooked medium rare, they will emerge from the oven medium -- or more. Pan-seared Maine lobster comes in a rich, pinkish sauce. It's a dish that should be a siren call to lovers of lobster Thermidor and other such dishes, but, personally, I wanted to scrape the sauce off the lobster after a few bites. But I very much enjoyed the intricately spiced Kashmiri lamb curry -- so much so, I called for more bread.
TRAINED in India, executive chef Gautam Chaudhry has worked with the Mandarin Oriental hotel in Geneva, and with the Oberoi hotel group in Milan, Italy; sous chef and pastry chef Mark Kim has experience with Wolfgang Puck's catering division and the late French restaurant Maximilians in North Hollywood. Although the cooking can be very good here, both the menu and the execution can also be wildly erratic, depending on who is in the kitchen on a given night. Plump Goan crab cakes with subtle flavors of mustard seed and curry leaves that sing against a chutney laced with shredded crab are fabulous one night. On another, the same dish is inexplicably dull. Prawn pulao, which includes both tandoori and tempura prawns is schizoid -- the tandoori prawns are pretty good, the tempura ones greasy and leaden.
The staff at Tanzore seems tremendously concerned about whether you're enjoying your food. Too much so when a server asks each of us, every course, how we liked each dish. It's not just a general question addressed to the table, to which you can murmur fine and get back to your meal. It's incredibly intrusive and puts everyone on the spot. We want to ask him to cease and desist, but in the end, just don't have the heart to do it. And so we suffer through the meal.
He (and other waiters on other visits) is compelled to detail every single ingredient in each dish, including the garnish, some kind of special leaf (he even tells us what he thinks it tastes like). It's just too much information, often at the wrong time with a manager hovering in the background, watching carefully how the performance flies.
May I ask a favor? Just let us enjoy and experience the food on our own, and if we have a question, well, then, we'll ask.
Tanzore has made a substantial investment in the wine cellar, which features prominently in the design as a glassed-in wall of wine dividing the lounge from the dining room. Servers are eager and willing to help pick wines from the core list of 100 wines chosen to go with Indian food but are only parroting what they've been told. Of course, as with any wine list, it depends on what you're having, and since no two people at the table are usually eating the same thing, wine matches are a moot point. No one bottle is going to go well with everything.
That said, the list does offer an ample selection of Champagnes, including Dom Pérignon, Pol Roger and Deutz, plus a dozen sparkling wines, and a broad selection of whites and reds, a number of them less than $50. There's also a cellar list with older vintages of California wines and a handful of imported reds.