Z: The spice market, located on West Washington Blvd. near Sawtelle, has occupied this locale since 1979 and even features fresh produce with unique items like bitter melon, taro root, and tiny, golf ball-size Indian eggplants. In 2005, owner Vibha Bhojak added the informal café that attracts a steadily growing clientele of diners, take-out customers, and Indian spice shoppers.
R: Two unique features make this dining experience stand apart: Chef Sabherwal and the fragrant, casual ambience. We felt fortunate to have met and chatted with Sabherwal, the restaurant's highly creative chef who practically grew up in the kitchen. At an early age he attended culinary school in Delhi, and at 17 began to fulfill a 6-year apprenticeship, gradually rising to executive chef while working in some of India's 5-star restaurants.
Z: After tasting Sabherwal's food, we clearly recognized that many Indian restaurants have capable cooks in the kitchen, but few have chefs with professional culinary training. We could taste the difference! Sabherwal has a copious repertoire of innovative dishes not found on other Indian menus including Besan Burfi, a vegan dessert that literally does "melt in the mouth." His tantalizing offerings, with a predominance of vegan dishes, represent the multiplicity of cuisines that span the entire country.
R: Especially compelling was his application of spices that create exceptional flavor while allowing each dish to emerge with its own distinct flavor. He grinds his own mixture of 24 fresh and dried herbs and spices including cumin seeds, mace powder, fresh ginger and ginger powder, nutmeg, coriander, cloves, bay leaf, black cardamom, cinnamon stick, turmeric, and onion seeds. These he combines in a cheesecloth pouch that's dropped into the cooking pot, adding flavor allure to each dish. At the end of the cooking process, the seasoning pouch is promptly discarded to avoid creating harsh flavors.
Z: When we entered the market, we strolled past the produce section to reach our destination, the counter where we could place our order. We noted that both new and regular customers were treated to Vibha's innate exuberant warmth that created an instant feeling of conviviality. She graciously gave us an explanation of their steam table selections that vary each day. The deli case next to the order counter displays a selection of desserts on the bottom shelf with appetizers and other specialties on the two top rows.
R: Very vegan savvy, the chef uses oil in place of ghee when grilling breads and preparing other vegan dishes. On our first visit we were intrigued with the Jackfruit Curry, a gastronome's nirvana, with the delicate sweetness of jackfruit brilliantly enveloped in a well-seasoned, thick savory sauce rich with seemingly magical spices.
Z: We began our first encounter with tiny carrot and potato Samosas that were one-third the size of the typical variety and formed into perfect triangles. Remembering that my mom used to say good things come in little packages, I can fully agree. These samosas, served with tamarind sauce and mint chutney, were exceptional--a little spice, but not too much--plenty of flavor from the chef's spice blend, but not too much--a very delectable appetizer, but not so large it spoiled the meal ahead.
R: We also enjoyed a Mushroom and Corn Soup that was so tasty, light, and creamy it felt as if we were eating a satin cloud. Our second visit dream dish was the Peas Kofta in Peas Sauce. We had seen Malai Kofta listed on many Indian menus, but were unable to experience it because it was typically made with dairy products. At last, this knowledgeable chef was able to quell our curiosity with his innovative vegan version. Sabherwal's kofta was made with a base of chick pea flour spiked with coriander seeds and sophisticated seasonings and formed into a "meatball." The kofta was cooked in a thick, savory tomato-base sauce dotted with bright green peas. Oh, to be a fly on the wall of this kitchen!
Z: Don't we wish! The Aloo Gobi, a traditional stew of cauliflower and potatoes, was given a saucy coat of spinach and emerged as a tantalizing new incarnation. The cauliflower was cut into perfect bite-size pieces that were immersed in the ultra flavorful spinach sauce. On this day the Saag, which is the Indian word for spinach, was presented with mustard greens in place of spinach while sweet kernels of corn served as pleasant accents peeking through the perfectly seasoned green veil.
R: Chana Masala, a chickpea curry, is often cooked in a sauce with a tomato base. Spinach took front stage and bathed the chick peas in a delightful deep green curry expertly seasoned and spiced with a pleasant hit of chile heat.
Z: Sparingly doling out the spices, Sabherwal wisely prepared the potato curry, Aloo Sabzi, with more delicate seasonings in a tomato base turned golden with a sprinkle of turmeric. The lighter seasonings added pleasant balance to the meal as did the Basmati Rice with its dusting of saffron.
R: Accompanying our meal were Rotis, grilled breads made of whole-wheat flour sans ghee (clarified butter). These were lighter and thinner than the Naan served at most Indian eateries. While many restaurants emphasize elegant ambience, Samosa House focuses on well-prepared foods at very affordable prices.
Z: To keep customers entertained, Bollywood-type films stream on the flat-screen TV above the produce with authentic Indian music that nearly transported us back to Rajasthan where we spent two fabulous weeks in the spring of 2005.
R: Many of the well-known Indian desserts are made with dairy products, but we keep asking with the hope that some day we might be able to enjoy an Indian dessert without milk products. Sure enough, this is the place to savor four vegan treats--Besan Burfi, Ladoo, Habshi Halvah, and Petha. We saved just enough room for Besan Burfi and were completely blown away.
Z: These little ghee-free dessert squares were even tempting to look at with their golden color and chopped pistachios sprinkled over the top. The Burfi measured about 1-inch thick and 1 1/2-inches across with a light, airy texture reminiscent of halvah and a flavor all its own. Made from chickpea flour, ground pumpkin seeds, saffron, and sugar syrup, this celestial, sweet confection slowly disintegrated on our tongues leaving us totally sated.
R: Knowing that chef Sabherwal has a galaxy of unique recipes at his creative fingertips, we wonder what treasures we'll encounter on our next visit.
11510 W. Washington Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90066
Reviewed August 2006