A few months ago, a colleague invited me to dinner at Newport Beach's Tamarind of London, which he considered probably the best Indian restaurant in Southern California, a full-fledged satellite of a Mayfair restaurant that had been among the first kitchens ever to win a Michelin star for its Indian cuisine. I had been to the London original about a decade ago, and while I had been more impressed by the clubby plushness of Cinnamon and the direct, vibrant flavors at Rasa and the late Kastoori, I was impressed by the Mayfair Tamarind and its frank attempt to produce Indian food with the sheen and polish of white-tablecloth European cuisine. Its specialties included glossy takes on curry house classics and an especially nice version of the rice casserole biryani roasted under a pastry dome, but what I remember chiefly was the wine list, the flowers and the cost.
I was not particularly surprised by the opulence of the Orange County Tamarind, which is in a fairly posh strip mall in Crystal Cove — not by its parking lot's close resemblance to a Mercedes showroom, by the picture windows onto the tandoori cooks or by the feeling that the rest of the customers had drifted in after a pleasant round of golf.
The cooking was equally unsurprising. Alfred Prasad, the young chef who had won back the lost Michelin star for the original restaurant, was in the kitchen, and a parade of pan-Indian dishes — elaborate grilled-mushroom salads, coconut-scented vegetable korma, chickpea dal, smoky eggplant curry and hot nan bread stuffed with coconut and dates — drifted across the table, most of them prettified with pomegranate seeds or rustic handfuls of baby lettuces, and none of it assertive enough to interfere with the scent of a pretty Sonoma Chardonnay.
It was luxury cooking for the Robb Report crowd, and it was easy enough to see why Prasad would have temporarily abandoned his London kitchen for a dining room less than a chip shot away from the warm California sea. I had a pleasant evening, and then I more or less forgot about the place.
But on Twitter the other day, a correspondent asked me what I thought the best Indian restaurant in the area might be, and I had to admit that I had no idea. I admire the southern Indian cooking at Woodlands in Northridge, some Kerala dishes from Mayura in Culver City, the Gujarat thalis at Rajdhani in Artesia, and some other places, but none of them is quite a "best" in the way that Kobe is the best two guard or Jitlada is the best Thai restaurant.
It occurred to me that Tamarind might be the best Indian restaurant, even without vivid spicing, even without its celebrity chef, who had gone back to England. The menu, I knew, had changed in subtle ways, less in content than in nomenclature. Channa chaat, a dish of cool chickpeas tossed with whole wheat crisps and striped with yogurt, tamarind and mint chutney, had become just chickpea salad, and novices would never know that the spinach-potato cake and chicken tikka were better known as aloo tikki and murgh malai.
Still, I'm not sure I was expecting the dinner I ended up being served. The wheat crisps in that chickpea salad were over-sturdy, more like Ritz crackers than like the delicate crunchy things you find in Artesia snack shops, and the garlic nan reminded me a little of California Pizza Kitchen. Marinated lamb chops grilled in the tandoor, a Tamarind specialty, were mushy, the tandoori salmon was overcooked and the black lentil dal seemed as if it were half butter. The vegetable biryani was sharply fragrant beneath its pastry dome but wetter than I'd remembered; the grains of rice were less distinct. It wasn't a bad dinner, exactly, but it wasn't what I'd wanted either. I left hungry for what I imagined was real Indian food.
The next evening found me in Artesia's Little India neighborhood, searching for what I imagined was a more authentic experience. I ended up at what is generally thought of as the nicest restaurant on the Pioneer Boulevard strip — not one of the sticky-table regional restaurants, but the place with white tablecloths and table music. Perversely, I ordered the exact Mughal meal I'd had the night before: channa chat, chicken tikka, tandoori lamb chops, makhani dal, garlic nan and vegetable biryani, with a couple of vegetable dishes thrown in for kicks.
I was expecting that dinner in the company of young desi couples and multi-generational Indian families would surpass dinner among the swells. What I wasn't expecting was that the food would be lesser in almost every respect — not just that the ingredients were obviously inferior, as you might expect in a less-expensive restaurant, but that the biryani was plumped out with canned vegetables and the chickpeas were indifferently cooked, the curries were one-dimensional and the nan was matzo-dry. The previous evening's meal wasn't erased — it burned in memory.
Had I mistaken Tamarind's careful spicing for blandness; the mild juiciness of its chicken tikka for timidity? Was not the buttery power of the dal preferable to overcooked insipidness? Was the moistness of the biryani's base meant to contrast with the fluffier grains at top, and wasn't the blast of cardamom refreshing? Was I being unrealistic about the possibilities of Indian cooking engineered to be palatable to toffs? Clearly, I needed to reassess.
When I returned to Tamarind, sipped an old-fashioned doctored with the spice blend garam masala and nibbled on a citrusy quinoa salad that would have been the star of any meal at Hollywood's M Café, I began to relax. Those spinach-potato cakes may have been presented with the care of sushi bar scallops, but they were delicious, lightly crusted at the edges and scented with a funky edge of fenugreek. Soft-shell crabs were perhaps over-battered (and definitely out of season), but the sturdy crust was flavored with coconut and toasted fennel, and they went down like potato chips. The curries — butter chicken, beef vindaloo — were deep and complex, tinged with chile heat, almost regal. Even the plain yellow dal was fine — a good dinner.
So is Tamarind up to the standard of London's elegant Indian restaurants? It could be, although I'm thinking not. But Mayfair is not Artesia, which is not Newport Beach. And in this case, context may count.
Maybe the swankiest Indian in Southern California. But what does that even mean?
7862 East Coast Highway, Newport Beach, (949) 715-8338, tamarindoflondon.com
Small plates, $7-$14; large plates, $22-$29; curries, $14-$24; desserts, $7-$8
Open 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Tuesdays to Fridays, 5-10:30 p.m. nightly. Credit cards accepted. Full bar. Valet parking.