R: Finding ourselves in the heart of Los Angeles in the Adams and Vermont area and quite hungry, we were amenable to devouring the treasures of Manas. That almost sounds like a Raiders of the Lost Ark adventure. Indiana Reuben and Fearless Zel had a remarkable experience uncovering a hidden jewel, Manas, an all-vegetarian Indian restaurant located near USC. We found a refreshing oasis where we drank from the vegetarian well and tasted manna from heaven.
Z: Located on the northwest corner of South Vermont Street and 29th Avenue, this singular eatery seems wholly out of place in a community where the signs read "corte de pelo, panaderia, paleteria, and comidas de Mexico." We asked Brinda, our sweet, attentive server if there was a sizeable Indian community living in this area that frequents the restaurant.
R: We learned her husband, Kanaj, and his brother, Kumar, opened the restaurant to serve the many Indian students who attend USC just blocks away. To accommodate students, who come from both Northern and Southern India, they composed a menu that reflects both cuisines that are vastly different from each other. We discovered that combining some items from both regions offered verve and diversity to our intrepid, daredevil palates. Only open since May 2006, the restaurant has already established a loyal clientele of young diners.
Z: Uttapam, one our favorite South Indian specialties, is giant lentil pancake with vegetables embedded. We paired it with Dal Makhani, a lentil stew often spooned over rice.
R: While we're very familiar with samosas, pakoras, and bhajis served at most Indian restaurants, we had never encountered Bhel Puri, a puffed rice appetizer that evoked our curiosity. We also ordered Gobi Manchurian, a dish not typically found on Indian menus because of its Chinese origins.
Z: To complete our meal we selected yet another item new to us and listed under Exotic Tandoori Breads. Tawa Paratha, a whole wheat bread made of three thin layers baked together to form one flatbread.
R: Having arrived hungry, we found the unadorned, softly tinted, cantaloupe walls looking good enough to eat. The light cheery color gave the dining room a cordial glow that was also reflected in the warm sandy hues of the large floor tiles. The windows that faced the street were heavily frosted, offering Manas customers a pleasant escape into a haven warmed by the soft, undulating sounds of the sitar.
Z: Bel Puri arrived at the table fragrant and enticing. An excellent choice, it was a chilled appetizer composed of crisp puffed rice, tiny crunchy noodles made of toor dal, minced onions, and cilantro. The combo was brilliantly seasoned with a spicy blend of two chutneys, tamarind and mint cilantro, sending a monsoon of salty, sweet, and tangy lemon flavors onto our eager taste receptors. The medley was cleverly heaped into a crisp papadum cup and placed on a platter garnished with finely shredded cabbage and carrots, slices of cucumber and tomato, and accented with a wedge of lemon. At $3.50, it was an exceptional value.
R: Wow! What a treat to discover an Indian restaurant that employs not just cooks, but creative chefs who turn out refreshingly innovative dishes! We appreciate nuance--actually seek it out and feel rewarded when we can share it with our readers.
Z: Chef Mohandas chalked up 25 years of experience working in India's 5-star hotel restaurants in addition to employing his skills in the galley of a cruise line. Chef Bala demonstrated his professional training with 15 years of experience in restaurants and on cruise lines. The result was evident in dishes like Dal Makhani, a combination of black grahams and kidney beans with its just-right spice level and exceptional blend of seasonings that make Indian food distinctive. The menu description of cream lentils cooked with spices and herbs hardly did the dish justice. We spooned this saucy delight over our white rice traditionally prepared to insure each grain was a separate entity.
R: Gobi Manchurian is another extraordinary dish rarely found in the Indian repertoire. Borrowed from the Chinese, this creation features cauliflower florets that are blanched, battered, and then briefly cooked in a well seasoned sauce sparked with ginger, garlic, green onions, and red chilies that give the cauliflower a bright red coating. A bit caloric, I must admit, but sooo tasty.
Z: Our giant, round, golden Onion, Chilli, and Tomato Uttappam filled the platter. The top was a colorful display of diced onions, thin rounds of jalapeno, and chopped tomatoes infused into the pancake. On the side were small bowls of Sambar and Coconut Chutney that invariably accompany uttappam. The Sambar, usually a mildly flavored soup made from lentils, fenugreek seeds, coriander seeds, curry leaves, mustard seeds, tamarind, and veggies, was richly endowed with flavor. This delicious soup was loaded with chunks of carrots, okra, potatoes, and green beans! The Coconut Chutney was a delightful, thick, and creamy blend of ground coconut and spices.
R: On a return visit, I would definitely order the Uttappam again. Another specialty of Indian cuisine is the wonderful variety of breads prepared in a clay oven. In addition to the familiar Naan, Aloo Paratha, and Poori, Manas chefs prepare Tawa Paratha, a triangular shaped whole-wheat flatbread with a golden surface. Tearing off a piece, I could easily recognize the three separate slim layers all baked into one deliciously light bread.
Z: The well-rounded menu features mostly vegan dishes. However, we were disappointed that all the desserts contained dairy products. Speaking up for the vegan community, we encouraged owner Kumar to persuade the chefs to replace the milk products in some items with a soy beverage.
R: Other specialties of the restaurant include Idly, Medu Vada, Vada Pav, Dahi Bhalla, Tomato Soup, and Masala Dosa. The Indo Chinese offerings feature dishes like Szechuwan Fried Rice, Singapore Rice Noodles, Vegetable Chowmein, and Pan Fried Broccoli with Red Pepper. Their lunch buffet featuring a dozen dishes is $8 on weekdays and $10 on weekends. For USC Trojans who mention Citysearch, Manas offers a special dinner between 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.
Z: The ambience speaks simplicity--bare walls except for a TV on the back wall, butcher paper covering the tablecloths, upholstered booths along the walls, and frosted window panes. This simplicity, however, serves them well by turning the focus to their tasty, aromatic dishes.
R: And speaking of aromatic dishes, my nose was instantly captivated with the wonderfully fragrant amalgam of Indian spices as soon as we entered. Being enveloped in a spice bazaar does wonders to spark the appetite. I was not disappointed.
Z: In addition to the restaurant, Kumar and Konaj Venkata operate an Indian spice market and travel agency next door for the convenience of the Indian students. And with students' budgets in mind, the menu is priced very reasonably.
2823 S. Vermont St., Los Angeles, CA 90007
Reviewed July 2006