Akbar, 650 W. Duarte Road, Arcadia; (818) 574-8836. Open for lunch Monday-Friday; dinner nightly; Sunday brunch. Full bar. All major credit cards. Parking in lot. Dinner for two, food only, $20-$30.
"What type of restaurant is this?" asks a customer peering in the door.
"This is an Indian restaurant, madam."
She looks at her husband, shakes her head and says, "We know nothing about Indian food, I think we'll pass."
"In 1977," says Kapal Kapoor, "most people here didn't know much about Indian food." That was the year Kapoor and his family took over the first Los Angeles Akbar. "But once they got over their initial resistance they found they liked the food. It's just a matter of educating the public."
The Kapoor family has been educating the public for the last 10 years. They still own Akbar in the Marina, as well as another, more recent restaurant in Encino. And just last month they ventured into Arcadia, where, for the most part, Indian food remains an exotic cuisine.
Unfortunately, people who are unfamiliar with Indian food think that Indian food is inevitably hot. This is a myth: although Indian food can be fiery, chile peppers are not at the heart of the cuisine, which is based on a combination of many spices. And using those spices is an art which is not necessarily dependant upon heat. Akbar, for instance, features Moglai cuisine which is rich with nuts, cream and yogurt.
The interior matches the richness of the cuisine. Walls the color of cracked wheat are hung with hand-painted copies of original Mogul art and intricate Punjabi fulkari cloth. Comfortable cherry wood chairs are cushioned in soft mauve, spacious booths rim the walls, and plants break up the room and create a sense of intimacy.
In India eating is generally done family style, so it is best to take a group of friends along. My recommendation is to start with an assortment of Indian tidbits. Spicy, yogurt-marinated pieces of chicken, chicken tikka, and masala-flavored minced lamb, seekh kebab (the best I've had in Los Angeles), come out of the tandoor humming with the flavors of exotic herbs and spices. Pakoras, vegetables dipped in gram flour and deep fried, are especially good with the mint chutney.
Other starters include shrimp chat, a sort of sweet and sour shrimp dish with pineapple and exotics like tamarind chutney, or a personal favorite, the aloo kach-aloo chat, a sharp and tangy potato dish smothered in tamarind sauce. Also impressive is kashk-e-badamjan, smooth-textured sauteed eggplant cooked with onions and various spices and topped with cream.
The most popular dishes here come from the tandoor. In addition to the usual chicken, seekh and tikka kebab, there are also tender, delicately spiced golden shrimp. Another special, malai chicken, is made from the most tender part of the chicken breast cooked in the tandoor and then topped with a smooth buttery cream sauce.
Indian food demands rice, but here you have a choice of many different kinds. With curries you would order a plain pilau, but with the tandoori dishes you might order an elaborate biryani-- a classic Moglai dish of steamed basmati rice alternating layers of succulent curried meats, yogurt and saffron. Shahjahani pilau , rich with nuts and raisins, is cooked with cream and offers a milder flavor. Long grained banarsi pilau, on the other hand comes studded with vegetables and nuts and suffused with the aroma of saffron.
The distinctly different flavor of the various curries comes from the specific combination of fresh herbs and spices. Chicken Akbari is a gentle, intricately seasoned curry, which comes in a sauce thickened with coconut and cashew milk, while chicken makhni offers boneless tandoori chicken in a smooth, buttery tomato sauce. The lasooni chicken, with its strong garlic flavor, is quite different. Saag or greens (in this case spinach seasoned with a combination of spices and mixed with cream) is made into a sauce for either shrimp, chunks of chicken, or lamb. It is a mild dish, quite a contrast to Vindaloo which, even when mildly made, is highly spiced and has a characteristically strong, sharp flavor of vinegar.
The seafood dishes include lobster malai, a delicately spiced curry cooked with cream (not on the menu but available upon request) and lobster bhuna, a more robust curry. There are also a couple of fish curries.
Akbar also has a terrific selection of vegetable dishes. Bharta , made with eggplant roasted in the tandoor then sauteed with a mixture of spices, is smooth and flavorful. Kofta malai, vegetables and homemade cheese balls stuffed with nuts comes in a rich creamy sauce. Dhal makhni, are delicately spiced creamed lentils. Guchhi mattar, sauteed mushrooms and peas, are cooked in mild spices.
To finish there are traditional Indian sweets. The star performer in this category is rasmalai , a spongy homemade cheese ball made from milk reduction; it is rarely found in restaurants. Kulfi , an Indian ice cream made with almonds, comes garnished with silver leaf, and gulab jaman, the slowly fried golden brown balls are fashioned from milk and flavored with rose water. Kheer, the creamy rice pudding and mango ice cream are both delicious.
Beer and full bodied wines go best with Indian food. There is also the traditional and refreshing yogurt drink, lassi, which comes in mango or lychee.