Dhaba Cuisine of India
2104 Main Street at Bicknell
Santa Monica, CA 90405
There were two alternatives. Either pick $400-per-princess Urasawa and scare the financial be-geezus out of the guy with my uber expensive high-maintenance taste (which I don’t really have, but this is how we play the game, remember?), or I could pick Benito’s, pay for my portion only to the penny, pick my nose during dinner, and hope that it grosses him out enough to, you know, let me down easy. Either way, it was Strike One because I had to choose the place.
*sigh* So, I wish I were that wickedly calculating, as it would make for great blog fodder, but I’m not. Instead of soap opera deception, I went the way of talk-show honesty and chose something reasonable, Dhaba Cuisine of India, in Santa Monica. Pick a reasonably fair restaurant, be nice during dinner, and then just give an honest good-bye at the end over gulab jamun. Boring? At least I used him *oops!* I meant I used the evening to check another restaurant off my To Dine List.
Besides, I don’t do Urasawa on the first date. I really am saving that for my wedding night. ;)
Dhaba is on Main Street in Santa Monica, and because it’s been around longer than I’ve been on earth, it now only has to rely on long-time loyal locals. I see the familiar yellow, turquoise, and pink painted elephant sign each time I drive down Main Street to go somewhere else, and have been telling myself that I will try it. It has to be good if it’s been around for 33 years without any advertising! And I’m still not telling you how old I am. Don’t you know that you’re never supposed to reveal everything on the first date? ;)
Though the address says Main Street, and it looks like there’s a door, the main entrance is actually on the cross-street Bicknell, through Dhaba’s back patio. About a third of the patio is open air, and the other two thirds are enclosed with wall and ceiling trellises that drip with foliage, fuschia bougainvillea and tiny white Christmas lights. It feels very much like a romantic jungle hideaway. Dammit. I didn’t know I picked a restaurant that was sort of romantic. *slaps forehead*
The inside room is small, and looks cozy and comfortable. Against my better judgment, we took a seat on the patio. I really just wanted to enjoy the summer evening, okay?
I’m a little concerned when we sit down, as I hadn’t seen a single Indian-looking person on the staff, nor eating in the dining room. Now, I know I’m not supposed to judge a book by its cover, nor a restaurant by the looks of the staff, but I couldn’t help it. Everyone there looked, well, white.
If I was going to have to play nice during dinner, I was going to need a little wine. The wine list at Dhaba offers "chardonnay," "pinot grigio," "cabernet," and "merlot" for $5.75 a glass, or $20 for a bottle. At least it wasn’t just “red” or “white.” I picked pinot grigio, and he picked Merlot. Uh oh. Strike Two. Just kidding, I have nothing against merlot; I just want another strike against him.
The dinner menu is pretty straight-forward, but like the suspicious absence of Indian people in the restaurant, there is a suspicious presence of salads on the menu. I’m pretty sure that organic baby greens with balsamic vinaigrette are not authentic Indian fare, even if it has tandoori salmon or shrimp on it, but it’s nice to know that I could come to Dhaba with friends who are less enthused about Indian as I am, and still be able to enjoy a meal. He told me he isn’t picky and that he’d eat whatever I ordered. Whoa. Under other circumstances, that’s nice. I can order whatever I want. Under these circumstances, this time it really is Strike Two. I have to do the work because he's indecisive. Oh well, I ordered.
NAN. Would you care for rice or naan? “Oh, I don’t know, what do you want?” Ugh. I ordered naan, plain, though I should have chosen extra extra extra garlic. The naan was a little too thin, a little too chewy, as if it had been pulled off the oven about twenty seconds too early, and it was already cut into pieces. Ah well, that takes care of the problem of sharing germs.
SAM. I just can’t start an Indian meal without a SAMosa. Dhaba’s samosas are perfect, equilateral triangles plump with potatoes, peas, and carrots, and beautifully wrapped in thin pastry. They’re deep fried to a perfect, crisp tan. They were good, better doused with some of the sticky sweet tamarind chutney, but missing a little bit of flavor. I wasn’t expecting heat, but a little more spice would have been nice.
CTM. With someone I’m not comfortable with, I have to go with foods with which I am. Chicken Tikka Masala came out in the typically Indian oblong dish, and like all the other serving plates at Dhaba, shiny silver. They were large pieces of chicken breast, so it was somewhat dry, especially with only a scant amount of deep, dark sauce that was fairly thick and bumpy. It didn’t look anything like the chicken tikka masala I was used to, that is much more gravy that is also smoother and creamier.
The most disappointing part was that though the chicken tikka masala had spice flavor, it had almost no spice heat. We had asked for spicy, the server said certainly, but it wasn’t spicy at all. I asked for hot sauce. The server said they didn’t have any, but could bring out some chopped chiles< /span>. That would be fine. It was about a quarter cup of chopped jalapenos, that unfortunately, I finished within the first ten minutes of our meal.
HAF: Cauliflower is a favorite vegetable, and if it were up to me, I would have ordered gobi aloo sans aloo. But that’s not normal, and though I wasn’t necessarily going for normal during this dinner, I just asked the server for a half order of the gobi aloo, heavy on the gobi. The other half order was going to saag paneer, sans paneer, but with tofu. Does that make me seem high-maintenance? I certainly hope so.
An order of vegetables is $9.50. A half order is $5.50, which sounds like a pretty good deal, until you see how big the order is. Even at $5.50, the half order is tiny. Gobi aloo came out in what looked like the one cup measure from my metal measuring cups. There were probably two pieces of potato, which meant they heeded my request for light on the aloo, but about three florets of cauliflower. Doubling that to a full order would still be pretty small for $9.50. Oh well, not my dime, but I was disappointed, because the gobi aloo was pretty tasty and I would have loved to have eaten more than two bites.
Tofu saag was very good, but didn’t have the deepness that I normally get from spinach that tastes like it’s been steeping in spices for a long time. The tofu cubes felt healthier than cheese, of course, but they too had not been cooked long enough in the spices. They were a little bland.
By the way, "jokes" with the server that we so un-funny it was awkward, painful conversation about Iraq, and a very annoying high-pitched laugh - Strike Three, he's outta there!
I didn’t really want to prolong dinner with dessert, especially since Dhaba doesn’t have my favorite, gulab jamun. Wouldn’t it be that this time, when I am ready to go, did he insist on their homemade mango ice cream. *roll eyes* Luckily, the ice cream was very good. Unlike many other mango ice creams and sorbets that have only a faint flavor of the fruit, this one was smooth and creamy ice cream with a fairly strong taste of mango.
If I had to gauge the evening, it was *eh* especially with the three strikes – he’s out. ;) Even the food alone might have been three strikes, with dry chicken in the tikka masala, teeny tiny portions, somewhat flat, flavorless tofu saag, and most importantly, no heat. No fire. No spark. But I realize now that one of Dhaba’s distinguishing points is that it leans toward healthy Indian with all white meat in the chicken tikka masala, portion control, and minimal fat in some of the vegetable preparations with tofu. If I keep that in mind, and make sure to ask for a whole bowl of chopped green chiles, then Dhaba gets a second date.