There it was, in my own back yard sparkling brightly through a quaint arcade within a refurbished group of buildings on La Brea Avenue, which once looked as if they were ready for a demolition crew but now are quite nice.
East India Grill, facing the street, is brand new-- weeks old--and looks it with its clean high-tech appearance, coordinated decor, gray-and-black color scheme.
What we have is an Indian restaurant with a California accent. We also have an Indian operator who understands Western twists of taste.
"I like to think of our restaurant as Indo-Californian," said Sumant Pardal, who, with his brother, Jayanth, were born and reared in East India and are continuing a family restaurant tradition in California. East India Grill, is, of course, East Indian, that is to say, Punjabi, which means that the cooking is spicy and garlicky and mean-'n'-hot. Try the Vindaloo curry, if you dare, and you'll see.
But Sumant Pardal's business orientation is decidedly Western. Pardal has worked in many Indian restaurants and seen (he coughs nervously to avoid the embarrassment of putting down the competition) "differences in approach, shall we say?"
"I wanted to get away from the traditional Indian restaurant with its sameness from one to another. Most Indian restaurant cooks rarely try Italian, French or other restaurants for curiosity's sake, inspiration or ideas. I wanted my restaurant to represent California, as well," he said.
And India Grill does. Sumant goes in for black china, hot colors for paper place mats and napkins and presentation that you may never see in an Indian restaurant--ever.
He's boiled down the curries to the three major types: masala, the tomato-based curry upon which Indians measure the worth of the cook; green--spinach-based sagwala curry from North India in which spinach is stir-fried with ginger; and brown curry-- vindaloo, seasoned with lemon, pepper and paprika.
Vindaloo, probably one of the most popular of the hot curries, originates in Goa in southwest India, and was made famous by the British unable to part with their affection for meat and potatoes, which is what vindaloo literally means. The original vinda - loo was made with pork, introduced when Goa was a Portuguese colony, according to Pardal. With the three different curries, you have them all.
You'll get the freshly made nan bread that is baked against the sides of a tandoori oven presided at all times by the tandoori cook. And they come in many versions, including garlic-basil, tomato, onion-cilantro and mint. The breads come to the table piping hot, not during the meal, but before it, as Sumanth learned Westerners prefer. "Americans like nibbling on bread while waiting for dinner, I've noticed," he said.
You also get innovative things like calamari made with three different flours in a batter that puffs up the calamari (chickpea flour expands like crazy). The specials of the day are based on what's fresh and good in the market. There is a New York tandoori steak that is marinated in olive oil and Indian spices and served crowned with chopped mushrooms and brown onions. Baby octopus is served in a green cilantro curry. The Pardal's also serve braised Cornish hen and scampi Indian style as specials.
The appetizer standbys, such as pyramid-shaped samosas are fresh, filled with curried potato and very good. So are the pakora, the chicken wing appetizer that Pardal calls "drums of heaven," (for Western ears and eyes?) served with terrific mint and tomato chutneys. The drumette bone is kept intact to make eating out of hand easier.
The salads, based on the Chinese chicken salad idea use crispy, fried, homemade papri noodles and a tamarind-anise seed vinaigrette for the dressing. There are tandoori chicken and vegetarian versions of the same salad. Both are good.
For fish lovers, there is an East Indian fish dish made with whole king fish, which is marinated and deep-fried for crispy appetizers.
Biryani, a meat, chicken, vegetable or shrimp casserole with basmati rice is seasoned typically with kewra water (something like rose water) and cardamom, an influence of the neighboring Persian cuisine. It comes in a charming copper casserole served with yogurt and lentils.
Dessert is a twist, too. French pastries from the corner bakery, if you need to have anything. Otherwise, I suggest lassi, the mango yogurt drink for dessert to refresh the palate and confirm Pardal's slogan: "An Indian cucina with a California accent."
East India Grill, 345 N. La Brea Ave. (213) 936-8844 or 8845. Open from 11 to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday. For dinner from 6 to 10:30 p.m., daily, including Saturday and Sunday. Non-alcoholic beer and wine. Cash only. Reservations not necessary. Parking lot parking in building at lunchtime and side at dinnertime. Take-out and catering available.