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RESTAURANTS / THE REVIEW

Bread and beauty

Forget about dining in a neutral zone: Alive with vibrant colors, Tanzore packages Indian cooking with a bit of panache.

December 12, 2007|S. Irene Virbila | Times Staff Writer

LIVING in a city with such an original sense of fashion, Angelenos are style-savvy to the bone. So why is restaurant design in such a funk? It's as if every new restaurant is showing up at the party wearing the same dress -- yards of votive candles, black leather booths, bare tables and vinyl place mats.

Tanzore, though, the new contemporary Indian restaurant on La Cienega's Restaurant Row, bursts onto the scene with a highly individual, stylized look. Walking into the sprawling space feels like stepping off a flight to Bombay straight into a happening cocktail lounge crowded with fashionably dressed jet-setters. No beige and black for this place: The intense, saturated colors -- cinnamon, saffron, turmeric -- are straight out of an Indian spice box. Low turquoise sofas line the walls with poufs covered in bright silks for more seating. As a waiter takes orders for suitably exotic cocktails, a Bollywood dance number inspired by the routines in the film "Grease" plays on a flat-screen monitor.

Tanzore is fun and exotic without getting folkloric. The menu, too, is updated Indian fare, based on fresh, local ingredients, and designed to have a distinct California-Indian edge. Instead of serving everything family style, dishes here are individually plated on Villeroy & Boch china in the latest shapes. The wine list features a core list of 100 wines chosen to play well with the food. And a late-night bar menu keeps things going until closing time. The result is a truly trendy Indian restaurant from the Sood family, which owns the Gaylord India chain. In fact Tanzore occupies the former Gaylord space.

In its heyday, Gaylord broke out of the typical Indian restaurant mold with a lavish high-end setting and more elaborate menus. Tanzore ups the ante with a cutting-edge decor and updated cuisine based on the same quality ingredients you'd find in Spago's or Campanile's kitchens. Somehow, though, it doesn't always add up to a compelling experience. In trying so hard to make Indian food accessible to a broader audience, the chefs lose some of the cuisine's soul.

And in telling guests about the menu, the management tends to lay it on as thick as evangelists. Servers ask if you've ever dined at Tanzore before, and if the answer is no, they launch into a highly scripted speech. They'll explain that Tanzore's kitchen serves contemporary Indian cuisine and by way of an example tell you they've taken the spice out. What? By spice, they mean the fire power, which is (presumably) what scares people away from the marvelous and intricate cooking of this vast country. Despite its reputation, Indian cuisine is highly spiced but not always fiery. Here, the cooks have simply toned it down without dispensing with the numerous and complex spices -- cardamom, turmeric, coriander, cumin -- that give Indian cuisine its intoxicating flavor profile and then cross-referenced it with California cuisine.

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Velvet lamb kebabs

Some of the crossover dishes work, but others are less successful, sometimes due to concept, other times to flawed execution. I liked seared yellowfin tuna revved up with toasted coriander and set on a soothing avocado raita that's really an unemphatic guacamole. Velvet lamb kebab is delicious too, minced lamb streaked with paprika and cumin wrapped around a skewer and grilled. But what's with the mashed potatoes? It brings back the dark ages of tall food all too vividly when practically everything was served on top of mashed spuds. Seared scallop salad could have come from any trendy restaurant. It's a familiar California idiom, some kind of seafood with avocado, orange or grapefruit segments, hearts of palm and salad greens tossed in a vinaigrette, in this case a walloping vodka-citrus one. This has got to be the dish for someone leery of trying anything that sounds even vaguely Indian. Why reinforce the cliches of California cuisine?

Other appetizers, though, are more recognizably Indian, such as tandoori tiger prawns or the trio of chicken tikka, each marinated in a different herb and spice combination. Wait a minute: One of them is cheddar and pink peppercorns. Why cheddar when Indian cuisine has its own paneer cheese? It's crazy, and also not very good. Stick with the more traditional offerings, such as the samosa plate that comes with spiced potatoes, a spinach and asparagus puree and delectable, gently spiced samosas stuffed with potatoes and peas.

Order a basket of the fresh flatbreads with a trio of house-made chutneys. Yeasty and blistered from the oven, the nan is terrific. The flaky round paratha is wonderful too. You can also order kulcha stuffed with cheddar and Philadelphia cream cheese. But why would you want to? Does Philadelphia cream cheese have some kind of mysterious cachet in India?

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