Chandni Indian Vegetarian
1909 Wilshire Boulevard
Santa Monica, CA
On most weekends, I head out with all kinds of harried intents and purposes, armed with lists upon lists of errands, grocery shopping, picking up, dropping off, phone calls to be made en route to the next stop. That’s all to be done after wolfing an egg-white omelette at this particular, pre-determined place that is on my way to somewhere else, or a croissant in a brown paper bag and a cup of coffee to go from that particular place that has been programmed into my day, on my list. So I can cross it off. So I can feel accomplished. Breakfast? Check. Next!
If my weekdays are spent lazily blogging in front of my laptop, baking cupcakes to calm my nerves, cooking cauliflower to relax, my weekends are hectic. For most normal people, crazy hectic Outlook-calendar-fueled, list-driven work occurs Monday through Friday, but as soon as the weekend hits, all spreadsheets shutdown, the mouse is replaced by a remote control, for 48 hours, it’s pure lazy nirvana.
An oddly flip flopped lifestyle, mine is.
Apparently, too, Yoda I am.
One particular weekend, however, was laid back. Someone must have laced my coffee pot with decaf, or perhaps I was in that slow-moving hangover haze. I left my lists on the kitchen table. I forgot about dishes, laundry, dry-cleaning (wait, why do I have dry-cleaning? I only wear sweats), strategically planning my route to the other Ralphs so I could also get in a stop at Bed Bath & Beyond right next door to it for a non-slip mat. We simply hopped in the car and headed toward the ocean, driving slowly along Wilshire Boulevard. We were driving, not to a destination; we were driving purely for...the drive. “Let’s just stop wherever strikes our fancy.”
I slapped my hand over my mouth. Did that just come out of my mouth?!?! “Whatever strikes our fancy” is phrase almost never enters my Delicious life. I don’t go anywhere without a plan. Now I know someone laced my coffee with something, not just decaf. But shoot, I didn’t have my lists with me. I didn’t even have a pen in the car to write a new list. This was one wild and crazy day. Wild and crazy, I tell you!
When you drive along Wilshire at a leisurely pace instead of the hunched forward, bobbing and weaving through traffic to get to Santa Monica before closing time, you see a lot of things. Wait, there's a Bank of America on Wilshire?! Okay, and we'll ignore the Church of Scientology. Pier 1 Imports, Magnolia Audio & Video, Petco...And right between 19th and 20th streets, what would normally be a black and white blur in my peripheral vision, this time colorfully, though quietly, registered as Chandni Indian Vegetarian. We slipped into the metered parking out front.
Unless you were stopping with the express, pre-determined purpose of going, you wouldn’t stop in front of Chandni for its unassuming to the point of invisible, small, crumbly white exterior. It looks like a house. No, it looks like a shack. When you step through the front door that looks and feels like its about to fall off the hinges, it still feels a bit like a shack. But a clean shack.
The server/host was a small, round-faced man with a huge smile and a warm, welcoming air about him. He, like the other servers, was wearing a white shirt and black bow-tie, and in his perfectly round, dark rimmed glasses, looked like the long-lost Indian twin brother of Steve Urkel. He directed us to a booth off to one side. We were careful not to accidentally sweep the crimson polyester cloth off the table as we shimmied our butts around the seating.
Lunchtime at Chandni is a buffet. I got up, walked over to the buffet to take a look at what was beign offered in the tiny L-shaped steam tables. I am probably the most vocal anti-Buffet campaginer out there, but for some reason, Indian buffets don’t bother me as much. Indian buffets always seem to have their food replensihed every two minutes, and the most important thing, naan, isn’t even on the buffet. It is usually brought directly from the kitchen to the table. Japanese sushi buffet, American buffets, Korean buffets are all nasty, but Indian buffets are okay. So, I’m pretty much a buffet racist.
I also asked to see a copy of the regular menu, not because the buffet turned me off, but I am the type of girl who likes to know what all the options are first, okay!? The server brought water and waited politely and expectantly to see if I hade made a choice from the menu. I handed it back to him. He smiled. He, like me, knew all along I was going to eat from the buffet.
They say the buffet changes daily, but I suspect that the changes are merely variations on the same basic things. There will always be basmati rice, chutney made of green chilies, tamarind, and raita, something heavy on the aloo (potatoes), if not aloo by itself, and of course rice pudding for dessert.
Chandni’s bengan bharta was different from what I was used to in other Indian restaurants. The eggplant puree was less pureed, with pieces of eggplant that were discernible from chopped onions and other vegetables. It was lighter, brighter yellow, and had a soft sweetness that I completely demolished with the green chili chutney.green chili chutney wasn’t spicy enough for me, so I asked for anything else they might have that’s hotter? “How hot?” he asked with a smile that I could tell was testing me. Is this some silent dare?!?! Of course not. It’s in my head. Still, I very solemnly answered, “Very hot.” The server obliged, and brought an enormous boat of red sauce to the table. It looked menacing, but it wasn’t as hot as I could have taken. I can take it hot, you know.
Like most buffets, naan comes to the table directly from the kitchen. Chandni’s naan was standard, though I was slightly disappointed that they pre-cut the big, irregularly shaped flatbreads that look like warped versions of the continents into smaller pieces for us. Regardless, the naan had plenty of the black, charred poufs that I like to pluck off first.
The rest of the buffet was good. Mixed vegetables looked strangely like they may have been poured into the pot from a frozen bag of Green Giant, but I didn’t mind. The spice was right, and made better with an embarrasing downpour of the red hot sauce. The same Green Giant vegetables were in the curry with paneer (I don’t know what the name of the dish was).
Now since that crazy lazy, unplanned day that crossed my stars, dotted my highs, and landed me at the little white shack, I have eaten Chandni at least four more times. However, those at-least-four-more-times have all been take-out. No matter what time of the evening it is, Urkel is the one who answers the phone with a voice that gives away a huge smile at the other end – and yes, I do know it’s Urkel and not because all those Indian call center guys sound the same.
My order is usually the same three or four items, but if it just so happens that I’m feeling a little spontaneous, a little adventurous enough to order something different (omg! she’s feeling so adventurous she might actually order...a different kind of potato!), Urkel has all the patience in the world to list and describe every dish on the menu - do you like mushrooms? Now, we have stuffed eggplant. We also have bell pepper. The order only takes ten minutes, which is just long enough for me to hang up the phone, put on shoes, hop into my car, and drive down Wilshire, this time with one intent, and one purpose, to pick it up.
Samosas are on the order without fail because...holy shite, I can’t believe I am about to admit how utterly gluttonous I am. I have zero patience and samosas are easy to eat in the car on the way back home. Ack! Yes! I order the samosas so I can eat them as appetizers on the way home!!! I jump in the car, start the engine, and while I am attempting a Evil Knievel illegal U-turn on Wilshire Boulevard, and with only my left hand no less, I am simultaneously shuffling through the giant brown bag with my right had, trying to shimmy the samosas out of their individual aluminum foil packet. By the time I get home, I have pastry crumbs and little bits of curried potato and whole peas attached to the front of my t-shirt and a completely rumpled brown bag full of Indian vegetarian food, and the roof of my mouth is burned raw because I couldn’t wait. Punished.
Samosas are standard, as is garlic naan, which is about the same as every other restaurant’s. Every other order, I think it’s been either saag paneer or gobi aloo. Spinach in saag paneer always tastes a little bit fresher than other places, as if its been cooking long enough to create and absorb flavor, but not long enough to disintegrate into a simple mash of chlorophyll and cellulose. Cubes of paneer are bigger, and lightly seared. I can’t believe I am about to admit something I would never admit out loud anywhere except in my Delicious Life, but I usually ask Urkel for gobi aloo, with no aloo. Just the cauliflower! LOL! And Urkel is always happy to make just gobi. Of course I know Urkel isn’t back there in the kitchen making gobi my way, from a fresh new batch of just cauliflower, as if this were Burger King, but it’s really sweet that he’s back there picking out every piece of aloo from the pot for me.
There are a few things I’ve tried that are “new.” I didn’t love the mushroom masala, as it tasted simply like button mushrooms sauteed in butter and stale, old dried curry powder, but I just about fell all over myself for t
he bindhi masala. A lot of people are turned off by the slightly fuzzy exterior of okra, and more so by the sticky, stringy almost obscene mess okra becomes when sliced, but I don’t mind it at all. The okra was just barely cooked to tender-firm, still maintaining its integrity as okra. The sauce was bright, fresh, not overly laden with cream or butter. Of course, it was nowhere near spicy enough for my taste, but that’s why Urkel is always more the obliging with requests for extra green chili chutney and hot sauce.
Daal is never far from an Indian vegetarian menu, as lentils are a solid source of protein in a vegetarian diet. Chandni offers a few types of daal, but I’ve only tried the moong daal, a simple preparation thay renders the daal sweet and creamy. I could have eaten the entire container of moong daal with a spoon as a thick, creamy lentil soup.
One of the most surprising dishes has been one of Chandni’s chef’s specials – stuffed peppers. Urkel talked me into it over the phone, saying that it’s delicious (though I’m quite certain that he thinks everything on the menu is delicious). He was right. The peppers were incredibly soft, making it easy to eat the stuffing of lightly spiced potatoes and peas inside. The peppers were in the same light, fresh orangish red tomato sauce of the vegetable paneer curry, and the bidnhi masala, which meant, of course, I had to add quite a bit of my own heat.
Chandni doesn’t deliver, but perhaps that’s for the better. If they delivered, this lazy ass could quite possibly order it every night. And that would take away all those opportunities to drive down Wilshire Boulevard – the same drive that found Chandni in the first place.
** a year ago today, i skipped the strippers for a saloon **