From outside, the Electric Lotus looks like a fast-food place in a tiny Los Feliz Village mall. Inside, hot shades of rose, gold, azure and electric blue shock the eyes. The ears get a jolt too--from Qawwali music, that intense, spiritual Pakistani singing. Usually it's recorded, but Qawwal Badar Ali Khan has performed there live.
The food also startles. You'll recognize these north Indian dishes, but not the way they taste: intense, yet light and fresh. Much of it is vegetarian. Only olive oil is used, and not much of that. Tofu stands in for the Indian cheese paneer, and its light, almost fluffy texture becomes an asset, though real paneer is on hand if you insist.
The final shock is the prices. They're very low for food so generously served.
The founder, schooled in a Buddhist temple in northern India, is a music promoter and an ex-TV chef. Baba Varma, appeared for 35 weeks on "George [Hamilton] and Alana."
Varma has dedicated this restaurant to simple food of his home village, Sadabad, near Agra. Simplicity isn't easy, though. To get the food right, he has brought four chefs from India and Pakistan, the latest coming from the Taj Palace hotel in New Delhi.
They work in an open kitchen, which is uncommon in Indian restaurants. The woks hanging above the range are karhais that Varma brought from India. In Delhi, he located small copper serving bowls lined with stainless steel that are so attractive customers try to buy them. Shelves display spices, bottles of olive oil, everything that goes into the food. Long skewers hang above a clay tandoor from India. A big pot is filled with lightly spiced basmati rice, an occasional grain tinted orange with saffron. A heap of this accompanies most dishes.
The best way to order is to choose one of the combinations. That way you get rice, naan bread and probably more food than you can eat. It takes at least two to handle the top of the line Taj Mahal, named for Agra's famous monument. This one includes three vegetable curries, chicken tikka, chicken curry, a potato- and pea-stuffed samosa, plain naan, rice and chutneys--a lot of variety for $9.99. I was amused to see one very young couple order two Taj Mahals and leave most of the food behind because they were overwhelmed.
The vegetable dishes here are superb. Whole eggplants are roasted in the tandoor, then peeled, mashed and cooked with spices so well balanced that none stands out. Spinach and mustard greens soak in water overnight, then they are blanched and soaked again with olive oil drizzled over the water. When cooked, the sharpness of the mustard leaves tempers the sweetness of the spinach. You may know this dish from other Indian restaurants as saag paneer. Varma calls it palek paneer, and the paneer is tofu. Another dish combines peas with tofu. Potatoes come either with peas or with cauliflower (aloo gobi), the latter dish colored bright yellow with turmeric.
Lentils (dal) are the mainstay of Indian vegetarian cuisine, and the Electric Lotus does these well too. Chana masala (spiced garbanzo beans) is seasoned to perfection with onions, garlic, tomatoes and a blend of spices. Sometimes there is also black dal--tiny whole, black-skinned urad dal cooked with big red beans.
Breads include a variety of naans, whole wheat roti and potato paratha, which is not as heavy as it sounds. The kabuli naan is delightful. It's stuffed with a mildly sweet paste of cashews, almonds, raisins and cherries, which are fresh during the season and dried at other times.
The Electric Lotus serves no red meat, just chicken and shrimp. That old standby, chicken curry, gets proper attention here. The sauce is prepared separately, then simmered with chicken and onions three to four hours, producing great depth of flavor. On weekends, you can have chicken biryani, layers of chicken and rice cooked slowly all night and enticingly seasoned with wild black cardamom, green cardamom and cinnamon. Vegetable biryani, on the other hand, is a quick dish of sauteed vegetables mixed with rice.
Ground chicken kebabs and chicken tikka (chunks of white or dark meat) are grilled in the tandoor. But the ultimate test of a tandoor chef is, can he cook delicate seafood without drying it out? So I held my breath when I ordered tandoori shrimp. No cause to worry, though. The shrimp came out succulent and appetizingly bronzed. And they looked nice, arranged amid a scattering of sliced green bell pepper, onion, lemon wedges and cilantro.
Drinks are non-alcoholic. The one not to miss is mango lassi. It's prepared with fresh mango rather than canned pulp. There is also fresh banana lassi, or you can have masala chai, the spiced tea that has moved beyond Indian restaurants into mainstream trendiness.
Electric Lotus, 4656 Franklin Ave. (corner of Vermont), Los Angeles, (323) 953-0040. Open noon-2 a.m. daily. No alcohol. Lot and street parking. Major credit cards. Take-out. Dinner for two, food only, $7-$20.
What to Get: Taj Mahal combination, tandoori shrimp, chicken biryani, chana masala, any vegetable dish, mango lassi.