R: We were puzzled. How can a restaurant serving a great menu of vegetarian South Indian foods possibly be empty? That was the question we asked ourselves when we entered Vasantha Bhavan, a spacious restaurant located in Cerritos about 6:30 on a Tuesday night. It was so empty, there was not even a person to greet us. Determined to stay for dinner, we waited.
Z: We knew there was plenty of activity in the kitchen. We could hear the sounds of chopping and sizzling and could tell there was a raft of spicy dishes being prepared because of the fragrant aromas that permeated the dining area. Inhaling those exotic spices cranked up our appetites and put us into a ready-to-eat-mode. Nearly five minutes passed before we were greeted and escorted to a table.
R: The smaller weeknight menu listed plenty of choices and offered a few dishes that were unique to us--items we had not seen at other Indian restaurants. For us, uniqueness sparks strong interest and a desire to explore new flavors and textures. Elizabeth, our patient server, answered our questions and took our order. We noted there were no curries on this special menu, but the regular menu includes a comfortable variety such as Chana Masala and Aloo Gobi.
Z: While the nation goes ecologically green, Vasantha Bhavan goes green on decor. The carpeting is a deep green, the chair seats a medium green, the wainscot a bright green, and the table topper under the plexiglass was a leaf green with white linen beneath. A full complement of Indian artwork graced the ivory walls.
R: Nearly every Indian restaurant offers pakoras, but Peanut Pakora or Cashew Pakora is uncommon. We chose the Peanut Pakora expecting to see a samosa-like creation. Instead, we received a plateful of peanuts that were dipped into a seasoned chickpea batter, deep-fried, and accompanied with Tamarind and Mint Sauces. They were easy to like. Quite honestly, I found them downright addictive.
Z: As an additional appetizer, we ordered Vasantha Bhavan's Special that featured an Idli, a Vada, and a choice of Dosai or Uthappam served with Sambar and Coconut Curry. Because the Sambar was prepared with ghee made from butter, they substituted Rasam, a spicy soup that made a tasty dipping sauce. The Idli is a steamed cream of wheat cake. Vada, a deep fried lentil donut, can sometimes be rather heavy. Both were deliciously light and puffy and fun to dip into the spicy sauces.
R: This was our lucky night--we were served the Uthappam, a lentil pancake, and a mini Dosai. The Uthappam we selected was a veggie confetti of tomatoes, peas, carrots, onions, and green chiles pressed into the top, turned over, and cooked on a grill. The Dosai, a paper-thin lentil crepe, was filled with pleasantly spiced potato curry and rolled into a cylinder. This feast of appetizers would have been enough for a meal, but we planned to take home a portion so we could enjoy the remaining feast awaiting us.
Z: For our entrée, we shared the Vasantha Bhavan Special Thali, also called the Chennai Thali. Thalis are always a fun experience. For the uninitiated, a thali is usually a sectioned stainless steel tray that holds a variety of items. Our thali held small stainless steel bowls heaping with white rice, special rice, porial, kootu, kolumbhu, rasam, chapathi, lemon pickle, papad, and coconut curry. It was a royal banquet!
R: Zel was fond of the Porial, a spicy dry curry of potatoes seasoned with coconut, mustard seeds, and curry leaf. We began dunking each forkful into the Rasam, a spicy tamarind-based broth, until we discovered the Kolumbhu, an extraordinary sauce consisting of a complexity of sweet, savory, tart, bitter, and spicy flavors. Made from tamarind, tomatoes, onions, fennel seeds, and round, firm, pea-like pods, this seductive sauce was an exotic amalgam of complex flavors challenging to describe. Spicy came to the forefront, as did the tomato/tamarind base, but then little bursts of pungent seasonings blossomed on the tongue. We soon began dipping everything into the Kolumbhu.
Z: Reuben's love of lentils was fully sated with the Kootu, a savory yellow dal cooked in a lightly spiced green squash. Totally in love with the Kolumbhu, we poured some of it over the Kootu and even dipped our Chapathi into it. The special rice, made with a base of white rice, tamarind, and mustard seeds, was quite flavorful on its own and whispered its delicate hint of sweetness from the tamarind.
R: Adding yet another pungent flavor treat was the Lemon Pickle served in a tiny condiment cup. Sharply tart, spicy, and salty, the pickle is a traditional relish served with meals to enhance the eating pleasure.
Z: And for our viewing pleasure the TV on the back wall was pouring out Bollywood song and dance movies. We had a deeply soul-satisfying South Indian dinner full of nuance, spice, and great flavors.
R: The dishes we ordered were only a smattering of the extensive menu offerings--a dozen appetizers, twice as many dosas, uthappams, a variety of breads, rice specialties, curries, and even Indo/Chinese specialties like Gobi Manchurian. Vasantha Bhavan prides itself on its unique Tamil Specialty dishes. On weekends, the restaurant features special dishes. Friday night is Dosa Fest with a hearty buffet from 6 to 10 p.m. Everything is priced reasonably to fit even today's tightly stretched budget.
11321 East 183rd St., Cerritos, CA 90703
Reviewed July 2008