A lavish temple of promise
ONE reason I can’t wait to get back to London is the Indian food there. At its best, it can be incredibly nuanced and elegant. In Los Angeles, though, Indian restaurants are so much alike, few of them stand out. And none are on the level of London’s top restaurants like Tamarind or Zaika, which rate a Michelin star.
So it’s easy to see why a lavish new restaurant in Silver Lake has generated so much interest. Tantra, subtitled “Art of Indian Cuisine,” has the design savvy and sprawling layout of the latest generation of L.A.'s restaurant-slash-clubs, and, better still, a kitchen that promises the exotic with an updated Indian menu drawn from the one at Zaika in London.
Wedged between Cirxa and the venerable El Conquistador on Sunset Boulevard, Tantra preens like the Taj Mahal. The doors are massive copper surfaces pockmarked with age and set in an ornate frame. In the foyer you get the first shock of color -- saffron yellow walls inset with fuchsia glass cutouts. A stylized painted male/female face looms over the host’s station. Two potted palms -- male and female, the host points out -- stand guardian at the door.
To the left, past a narrow pool scattered with rose petals and floating candles, is the dining room. Its satiny wood tables and upholstered booths give it a smart contemporary look. Swaying from the lofty ceiling, tall red silk lampshades trimmed in fringe soften the room.
To the right, the ballroom-sized lounge and bar is decorated in the saturated colors of saris and spices -- cinnabar, indigo, fuchsia, turmeric. Most nights an eclectic Silver Lake crowd settles in, sipping fanciful cocktails with names like Shiva’s Revenge or Tears of Ganesha and snacking on small plates. The old black-and-white Bollywood movies playing silently on plasma screens are mesmerizing. I can’t get enough of the disheveled Clark Gable look-alike or the lavish Busby Berkeley-inspired dance routines.
For me, Tantra’s boho glamour (the work of designer Sat Garg) is an unexpected bonus. What drew me was the Zaika connection. Tantra’s owner, Navraj Singh, is the cousin of Zaika’s chef, Vineet Bhatia, and because of the family connection, Bhatia consulted on Tantra’s menu. Tantra’s chef is Sanjay Kumar.
But despite its London lineage, the menu at the 3-month- old restaurant disappointed me. It doesn’t read radically different from that at many Indian places around town, including Singh’s other restaurants. Zaika’s food is much more sophisticated and upscale than Tantra’s -- and more innovative, too. Tantra’s kitchen, however, has lightened some dishes by substituting olive oil for the traditional ghee (clarified butter).The quality of the ingredients is generally high, too, with freshly ground spices woven through the subtle curries and sauces.
Still, it feels as if the owner or the kitchen lost courage at the last minute and decided it would be less risky offering a more familiar menu. And they might well be right. But why not try to push the boundaries a bit more? (The fact that Tantra is doing an Indian take on Thanksgiving is an encouraging sign, with dishes that pique interest more than most things on the regular menu: turkey shish kebabs with cranberry chutney, herb and spice roasted turkey stuffed with morels and wild garlic leaves and served with corn and chile naan.)
For now, a wise strategy is to share starters -- maybe samosas in a crisp thin wrapper filled with spinach and, surprise, tofu; a salad of tiny potatoes laced with yogurt and a sweet/sour tamarind chutney and green chicken tikka in a fragrant sauce of coriander, basil and mint.
A kebab of tandoori salmon glazed with honey is charred and smoky, still moist at the center, but fried prawns in a spiky coat of broken vermicelli are overcooked and dry. Mushy tandoori broccoli won’t win many converts either. Slathered in melted yellow cheese, it seems like a distant cousin of Welsh rarebit. But do try the wonderful scallops swimming in a bowl of chile-laced coconut milk scented with lemon.
An occasional dish is a revelation, such as the catfish masala -- smoky grilled catfish cloaked in coconut milk and an intricately layered masala. The lamb biryani cooked under a crust arrives as a sort of divine Indian pot pie layered with lamb and fluffy long grains of basmati rice perfumed with spices. But chicken korma in a pale, incredibly rich cashew nut sauce begins to cloy after a few bites. And chicken tikka masala is dried out, its buttery tomato sauce only a memory.
Some of the best dishes are to be found in the list of a la carte vegetables. And those include fiery black lentils (dal) cooked overnight in the heat retained by the tandoori oven and a milder yellow dal laced with cumin and onion seeds. I can’t stay away from the okra stewed in tomatoes and herbs either.
Of course, any northern Indian meal needs naan, the pillowy flatbread cooked on the sides of the tandoori oven. I like it plain, but you can get a garlic version and an oddly compelling one covered pizza-style in molten cheese, onions and chiles.
Desserts are pretty slapdash, mostly sticky sweet ice creams (pistachio, mango and saffron), and an odd pineapple tandoori. Sometimes the oven gives the pineapple an acrid, charred taste; once, the fruit was so unripe, it tasted sour and bitter.
Service is still a little shaky. Bread or the occasional dish may be forgotten and there can be a long gap between courses. Likewise, the kitchen has needed time to sort itself out.
It’s encouraging, though, that my last meal was by far the best. I’m hoping that once the chef and his brigade settle in, he’ll offer more specials and be more daring with the menu. L.A. is ready for a more sophisticated Indian restaurant, something closer to Zaika. And with time it may turn out to be Tantra.
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Rating: * 1/2
Location: 3705 W. Sunset Blvd., Silver Lake; (323) 663-8268.
Ambience: Stylish contemporary Indian restaurant and an extravagantly large lounge with divans and plasma screens playing old Bollywood movies.
Service: Friendly, but disorganized and sometimes uninformed.
Price: Appetizers, $5 to $12; main courses, $11 to $16; vegetables, $7 to $8; desserts, $4.50 to $5.
Best dishes: Tandoori salmon kebab, green chicken tikka, lemon and chile scallops, catfish masala, lamb biryani, seasoned okra, black or yellow lentils.
Wine list: Short and sweet, with a couple of surprisingly savvy choices from Alsace. Corkage, $15.
Best table: The one enclosed in an alcove at the back of the dining room.
Details: Open for dinner Tuesday through Sunday, 6 p.m. to 11 p.m.; lounge open until 1 a.m. Valet parking, $3.50. Full bar. Reservations for six or more only.
Rating is based on food, service and ambience, with price taken into account in relation to quality. ****: Outstanding on every level. ***: Excellent. **: Very good. *: Good. No star: Poor to satisfactory.