R: You don't have to travel all the way to Spain, Anatolia, or Eastern Europe to find the heart of the gypsy soul. Look no further than Main Street in Venice to find Vardo Cafe serving tasty food with diversity and invigorating flavors It's the real thing and explores the many cuisines of the traveling gypsies.
Z: Vardo's gypsy spirit springs from owners Ava and Farzad Kasrabod who have brought the ideology of constant travel and exploration into their menu offerings. Just as gypsies thrive on change and diversity, so will the diners who come to Vardo for delicious dishes that reflect the cuisines of the Middle East, India, North Africa, and the Mediterranean.
R: I found the authentic Persian décor a visual feast as I surveyed the tiny cafe, discovering antique-like treasures in every corner. Even the unique darkened wood tables with their black wrought iron hinges seemed to have a story to tell. Perhaps, they time-travelled from a mystical past before living in this cozy cafe.
Z: I, too, felt myself drawn to the multitude of unique furnishings like gold-framed mirrors, wall sconces from far-away places of a past era, and the antiquated chandelier with a well-loved soul. Persian and Middle Eastern knickknacks, possibly collected while exploring bustling old world market places, add to the intriguing ambience. The red chairs and banquettes with heavily adorned metal frames brought a distinctive Persian feel to the restaurant's decor. The focal point of the room was the striking red velvet drape leading to the kitchen.
R: Opened in October 2009, this little dining spot in the heart of Venice has a warm welcoming staff and delicious food with a loving, homemade quality. The menu is small but offers fresh, wholesome items that are mostly organic. Indian was the featured cuisine when we dined at the restaurant with our friends Eric and Diana in our first visit. Along with the several Indian dishes on the menu were Falafel, Django Salad, and Sambhar Soup with Lentils.
Z: Eric and I opted for the Falafel--the perfect lunch dish. Wrapped in lavash and filled with bright red chopped tomatoes and baby greens, the falafel was a generous serving, though a little dry. Our server, Meghan, rescued the falafel with a little cup of extra tahini sauce that turned the wrap deliciously moist and very satisfying. Served with a large salad of lightly dressed, very colorful baby greens, walnuts, and raisins, the Falafel made for a hearty lunch that I shared with Reuben.
R: My choice was the Indian food so Zel and I could explore the menu's diversity. I truly appreciated the relaxed policy that allowed diners to choose either the Vardi Bowl of Rice and Vegan Stew or the Vardon Plate, a combination that included the Vegan Stew plus Salad. The menu listed four choices of Vegan Stews served over rice. With the combo plate, I could select a larger portion of one of the stews or smaller portions of two, three, or all four over the rice.
Z: I think Reuben has a little bit of the gypsy soul in his blood. His venturesome palate coaxed him to choose three of the four stews. The attractively plated dish arrived sporting the saucy Korma, Chana, and Jackfruit stews spooned over white Basmati rice. Alongside was the large salad of multicolored baby greens, walnuts, and raisins lightly dressed in a tasty vinaigrette. We were both admiring the attractive golden straw yellow ceramic plates and bowls with a raised pattern of the same color and the unique, heavy-weighted golden silverware. In harmony with the tastefully chosen dishes, the beige napkins of recycled paper made casual chic look great.
R: Each of the Indian stews was masterfully seasoned and distinctively different from the others. Each was rich with spices, yet mild and pleasing. Our favorite was the Jackfruit stew with its robust chunks of jackfruit in a thick sauce endowed with lip-smacking savory flavor. If Vardo's menu doesn't change, I made a mental note to try the Dal Stew on our next visit.
Z: Diana chose the Vardi Bowl with the combination of Jackfruit Stew and Korma over rice. She, too, feasted on the Jackfruit, but also gave her thumbs up for the Korma that was dotted with thickly sliced carrots and peas.
R: Meghan described the homemade, vegan Persian ice cream with such ardor we succumbed and ordered a dish all four of us could share. The vanilla ice cream, laced with saffron and rose water, was garnished with two vegan wafers that stood like stalwart sentinels on either side of the ice cream flushed with a golden glow. It was good--really good.
Z: Dining with our friends, we sat outside at one of the 5 outdoor tables that were nestled among the greenery. Sitting under the colonnade along this portion of Main Street, we could simultaneously enjoy delicious cuisine, warm weather, and people watching. Our Vardo experience was truly sensual. So many little touches make this cafe exceptional. Each table had a small terracotta pot of impatiens in full bloom. Behind the counter inside the cafe is a shelf holding kitchen bric-a-brac from intriguing distant places.
R: Our second visit was for dinner on a rather chilly night when soup and hot vegan stews nurtured our shivering bones into the comfort zone. I chose the small bowl of Sambar Soup and found it delectable and perfect for sharing. Zel even commented it was tastier than other versions she's experienced. The Korma bowl contained a bountiful quantity of Basmati rice topped with a deliciously seasoned coconut milk infused vegetable stew. Hopefully, a future menu will include a brown rice option.
Z: Putting the food conversation aside for a moment, I wanted to share thoughts about restaurant lighting and the powerful effect it can have on one's mood. Dinner dining at Vardo is certainly an experience that brings inklings of romance and intimacy. In fact, the tea candle lighting is so subdued you may want to consider bringing a flashlight to read the menu.
R: It was the Spinach Stew that attracted Zel because she has an affinity for almost anything spinach related. She paired it with the Dal and ordered the Vardon Plate with rice and mixed baby greens salad with walnuts and raisins.
Z: Our friend, Chuck, was delighted with the offerings and selected the Vardon Plate with the Spinach Stew and the Korma. Mutual tastings confirmed the good flavors of each dish and just right touch of spiciness.
R: Surprise entertainment by Samadhi Bishop, our server, was our treat for the evening. Seated with a colorful guitar in her lap, she gently beat a rhythm while singing the Beatles "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" and followed with her own original love song while strumming softly. Before and after she sang, soft Indian music played in the background.
Z: Dinner prices range between $7.50 and $12.50. Lunch items are between $9 and $11. Soups are $6 to $8. Smoothies and Shakes are priced at $9 to $10, while Ice Cream is $6. A variety of teas, either hot or iced, and Turkish coffee and coffee beverages are specialties as is a hot chocolate beverage called Casanova spiced with cayenne, cinnamon, and nutmeg. One of the highlights of the restaurant is homemade ice cream in unique flavors like saffron and rosewater, raw almond vanilla, mint chocolate chip, cucumber, and raw Turkish Coffee Gelato. A tray of Baklava and other sweets sits on the counter under clear glass and offers more than a nudge of wild temptation.
R: We learned the gypsy way of life is embodied in the cafe's name. Vardo means living wagon, and particularly refers to the typical, colorful caravan that carries the nomadic people from place to place as they travel to new destinations. We hope our own travels bring us back for another taste of gypsy soul food.
235 Main Street, Venice, CA 90291-5221
Reviewed March 2010