Nawab of India is unusual even in California's mixed-up culinary pot. It's an Indian restaurant that is partly owned by a Japanese company that is owned by Indians. And it occupies a site in Santa Monica that once housed a sushi bar.
The Japanese connection came through manager and part-owner Lalit Pant. In 1972, Pant opened an Indian restaurant in Kobe for Himalaya Ltd., which holds the Japanese franchise for the Gaylord Indian restaurants.
Pant worked strenuously to educate the Japanese in what was to them an unknown cuisine. He not only succeeded but went on to open two additional restaurants in Kobe. And today, Indian food is more popular in Japan than in Los Angeles, he says, attributing its success to the high caliber of Indian chefs there.
When Pant moved to Los Angeles, Himalaya Ltd. asked him to look for a restaurant site. The result is Nawab, owned by a partnership named Yugen Kaisha Himalaya and due to celebrate its first anniversary next month.
Style of the Westside
Nawab is a well-decorated, comfortable restaurant that looks more Westside than Indian and has such amenities as a wine list. But the food is thoroughly Indian, with the usual list of curries, breads and tandoor-grilled meats and seafood.
One of the stand-outs is murgh musallam, a tour de force in which chicken plays three roles. First, it's the main ingredient, as the word murgh (chicken) indicates. Then it turns up chopped like chili meat in the sauce, which also includes the bird's predecessor, the egg.
Another top dish here is chicken sagwala. In Nawab's rendition, the sag (spinach) is so transformed that even a spinach-hater might love it. Pureed and aromatically seasoned, it functions more like a sauce than a vegetable. Except for the spicing, the dish resembles the Mexican mole verde (green mole).
Still on the subject of chicken, there's a fine dish of spicy tandoori chicken morsels in a sumptuous butter and tomato sauce. The Hindi word for butter is makhan, and so this dish is called tandoori chicken makhanwala. As is typical in Indian restaurants, the sauces transfer from one dish to another, so you can also order fish makhanwala. Or switch from chicken to lamb seasoned with the spinach sauce (gosht sagwala) or try the same spinach with cubes of the pale Indian cheese, paneer. Nawab's menu translates paneer as cottage cheese, which is the common term for it in India. However, this firm, smooth cheese is quite different from the curdlike American product.
Back to chicken: Among the appetizers are chicken pakoras, which are nothing more than small pieces of tandoori chicken coated with gram (chickpea) flour and deep-fried. So simple, but very good, when the pakoras are freshly fried and blistering hot. Paneer is also prepared this way.
Non-Indians unfamiliar with the blend of spices known as chat masala could be unhappily surprised by alu chat, a cold appetizer of potato, tomato and cucumber. Pungently evident in the masala are two ingredients unknown to the American kitchen: odoriferous black salt and asafetida.
So if in doubt, ask advice from Pant, who constantly circles the room and encourages customers to try new dishes. One that has become popular is vegetable kofta, he says. This is a vegetarian dish of "meatballs" composed of potatoes, carrots and peas mixed with gram flour. The sauce has a touch of coconut milk as well as coconut shreds.
For dessert, there's a brilliantly orange dish of carrots cooked with milk, sugar and nuts; good, smooth mango ice cream and wonderful rice pudding strongly flavored with saffron.
Several set menus ease the task of ordering. Prices for recommended dishes are $9 for murgh musallam or chicken sagwala; $12 for tandoori chicken makhanwala; $6.50 for spinach with paneer or vegetable kofta and $5 for a small serving of chicken pakoras.
Nawab of India, 1621 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica; (213) 829-1106. Lunch from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday; from noon to 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; dinner from 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday; from 5 to 10 p.m. Sunday. Reservations accepted. Takes all major credit cards. Street parking.