Restaurant Review #23: Shige, Santa Monica (now closed)

I've given myself permission to not write about all of my dining experiences, since I want to keep both eating out and blogging as play, not work (at least until I become a famous restaurant critic). This was supposed to be one of those nights, hence, no photos. However, I feel particularly compelled to write about this place because I think it is mysteriously overlooked and underrated.

Located on the happening corner of Santa Monica Blvd and 4th street, I have walked by this place multiple times a week since back in the day when it was named Shabu 2. I am curious and slightly troubled by the restaurant's name change. How do you say Shige? This is not a word most Americans know how to pronounce. Does that make it trendy, or a pain in the ass? (Ever notice often those two things go together?) My guess is that the owner didn't want people to think the restaurant solely did shabu shabu and thus attract a wider clientele (it seems to have trouble with this).

I've always wanted to try it, given it's convenient location, sleek interior, and sushi menu, but since there never seem to be any patrons, I took that as a sign that someone knew something I didn't, namely, that the food was bad. Maybe the problem is simply that it's slightly off the Promenade, hence out of tourist range, and not as prestigous as other area Asian places. However, I read a little orange paper sign in the window one afternoon that said the place was run by sushi chef Shigenori Fujimoto, who worked at Matsuhisa for 11 years. How could this place be bad? So I ended up eating at Shige on a whim when I got to Rocca too late to be seated on a Friday night.

There were maybe 5 other tables occupied, which is pretty slow for a Friday, but maybe not so bad for 10pm. To be safe, and because I had gorged myself on Butterfingers that afternoon, I only ordered one roll, a yellowtail roll, of course. It was fresh and yummy, and had I not been so full, it would have convinced me to order more sushi. It wasn't exciting enough to convert my friend to raw fish, but alas, not everyone can appreciate the finer things in life (Sushi, California, Me). I also ordered some teriyaki beef kebabs (this was the beginning of my cow cravings). They were on the pink side, like most people eat their meat, but surprisingly this did not turn me off. They were pretty good, but a little on the chewy and too-big-for-my-mouth side, and my first bite had a glob of fat on it (this is why I originally stopped eating meat), though the rest of it was more carefully groomed. I also had a hot sake, which was good in a standardly good way. Any sake that doesn't burn going down or taste like rubbing alcohol gets the thumbs up from me. My definition of smooth is probably different from the wine connoiseur's, but who cares? I'm the one who was drinking it. Give me a couple years and I'll probably be an obnoxious wine connoiseur, too.

My friend ordered the shabu shabu chicken, or whatever the dish is actually called, which I was glad for since that was kind of the point of the restaurant, and uncanilly appropriate since we had watched Lost in Translation the week before. Shabu shabu, for those of you who don't know, is where the restaurant brings you a plate of raw meat and vegetables which you cook briefly in boiling water and then dip into sauces. It's kind of fun, but meat cooked this way tastes like nothing and thus relies completely on dipping sauce for flavor. I wonder, could they marinate the meat beforehand to make it more exciting? Or would the boiling destroy the marinade? My overall feeling about this dish coincides with Lost In Translation's sentiment: what kind of restaurant makes you cook your own food? I'm not into fondue for the same reason. I'm hungry, and I want my food, cooked, now! Unless it's sushi, of course. Shabu shabu is especially troublesome for me, the girl who does not cook meat. I'm afraid of poisoning myself by undercooking the meat, so I invariably cook it to death instead. Unless it's on my Foreman grill, which has timing instructions for different types, cuts, and weights of meat, thus allowing me to eat properly cooked meat with less fear of death.

The three (!) servers we had ranged from professional but indifferent to so friendly as to be a bit obtrusive. Though the kitchen closed while we were there (as almost always happens when I dine out, since I never got back on American time after living in Spain, and have no desire to), we didn't feel pressured or rushed to leave.

The restaurant has a choice of tables, booths, or bar seating. We chose a booth, and it was dark, roomy, and cozy. Though the booth was dark, the restaurant overall has fairly high lighting (not too high, just not what I'd call romantic). The restaurant is nice and quiet, though not overly so, since it's not too crowded. This makes it a nice weekend night spot, since most places in LA are bursting and reservations made well in advance often a necessity. I like Shige's sleek metallic decor (see link with photos at the end of this review).

Though I would not go out of my way to eat here again, that decision has more to do with my obsession with trying new restaurants than anything else. I enjoyed both the food and the atmosphere, and I could see myself coming back at some point. I did find myself recommending Shige to a friend the other day to steer him away from Todai. Overall, I'd say that for good sushi near the Promenade, or the next time you find yourself trying to make impossible last minute dinner plans on a Friday or Saturday night, give Shige a shot. This is also a good choice when you want sushi but your friends want cooked meat, since the menu offers plenty of both. Park in the Bank of America lot (4th between Arizona and Santa Monica) for $5 if you can't find street parking--the extra $2 is worth it to avoid parking garage chaos.

401 Santa Monica Blvd.
Santa Monica, CA
http://www.usmenuguide.com/shige.html (for restaurant photos)

Restaurant Review #22: Canal Club, Venice

My other bar food experience this month was at Canal Club. I hadn't been since July 2004, so I was eager to try the place again, especially given the promise of half-price happy hour sushi. On a Monday night at 6:30, the place was slightly under half-full, which was fine with me since I don't really like screaming at my friends. I was disappointed to find that half-price sushi meant a selection of only three rolls. At $2.50 each, the price was certainly right, but I was expecting a full sushi bar bonanza. I'm actually not sure where I got this half-price sushi idea from, but I'm sure I didn't make it up. Promises of cheap sushi are inevitably too good to be true.

The happy hour menu is short and to-the-point: brie and grape quesadillas, fried calamari, spicy tuna roll, california roll, sunset roll, and a couple of other things. We had the spicy tuna roll (not bad, especially considering that I don't like tuna, but it didn't taste like a whole lot), the sunset roll (cooked salmon doesn't belong in my sushi, I've decided), calamari (a bit overcooked, but the mayo dipping sauce was yummy), and brie and grape quesadillas (soggy, but tasty).

For good measure, we ordered 3 pieces of the chef's choice of nigiri. We received bluefin tuna, regular tuna, and yellowtail. All were not bad, but none got me too excited. I remembered Canal Club's sushi as being better, but in July, I was still a newbie to the sushi scene, so I don't really trust that places I liked back then are as good as I remember them.

I left craving more and better sushi. I'd still go here for happy hour over a lot of other places--spicy tuna rolls generally get me a lot more excited than spicy fried stuff, even though I'm not that fond of tuna. As far as drinks went, I enjoyed my chardonnay, though I don't know enough about wine to give you a knowledgeable opinion on it. My friend's vanilla vodka and coke was apparently on the overly strong side (but hey, at least it wasn't weak).

In addition to the regular bar, Canal Club has a bar away from the bar, where your back faces the bar and your front faces one side of the restaurant. All the fun of elevated bar stools, none of the chaos. They also have some kind of upstairs room, which we did not venture into but probably should have. Who knows what kind of debaucherous fun could have been waiting for us?

Canal Club Wood Grill & Sushi Bar
2025 Pacific AvenueVenice, CA 90291
Hours:Sushi & More Happy Hour 7 days a week 5pm-7pm
Dinner: Sunday-Thursday 6pm-10pm
Friday & Saturday 6pm-11pm
Canal Club on Urbanspoon

Restaurant Review #21: Library Alehouse, Santa Monica

Eating at the bar was my first challenge in my first food blog community activity. And a challenge it was, given that I don't like to sit at the sushi bar and I don't like to eat at regular bars. Privacy freak that I am, I just don't feel comfortable having a conversation for my neighbors and the bartender to listen to as they please. Sitting at the bar also feels chaotic, like I'm not really eating and things are just happening to me. I'm always up for a challenge though, and I found some creative solutions. I started thinking of so many solutions that I wasn't sure what to pick!

I finally choose the Library Alehouse on Main Street in Santa Monica. I had been once before and been pretty thrilled with the low-key atmosphere (a bar where you can hear your friends), nice lighting (dim overhead with candles on the tables), tall, cozy tables, and an actual beer selection (about 25, I think), including many things I'd never tried and a menu that actually described them. (For those of you who don't know, good beer is not on tap at most places in Santa Monica that I have been to.) I never know what to order at a bar, so I love the rare alcohol menu. I was less excited that they didn't have Fat Tire or Abita Purple Haze or Killian's or any of my other old standbys that I never realized were tied to the midwest or the south somehow (until I moved here and found myself deprived).

So on my return visit to the Library, I figured that good beer selection meant they must have good taste, and therefore, the food would be good. I spent the better part of my day beating back my hamburger craving, promising to feed it that evening. I also reminded myself that I could get a discount with my KCRW card, but of course I forgot to bring it with me.
At 8:30 on a Wednesday, we waited about 20 minutes for a table since it was too chilly to sit outside. I hear the outdoor seating is nice though. I wasn't expecting such a crowd, given that I had previously walked in at 10 or 11 on a Saturday night and had my choice of tables.

Unfortunately, my good food hunch was wrong. I ordered a burger,which in my book is standard bar food that I can expect to be made with aplomb. However, my burger was overcooked (and this is coming from an ex keep-that-cow-away-from-me gal). They didn't ask how I wanted my meat done, and they charge extra for standard toppings like cheese, sauteed onions, mushrooms, and bacon--75 cents per topping! When my burger already costs $8.50, this makes me feel like I'm being taken advantage of. The burger was pretty big and the bacon was thick, but do these things really matter when taste is suffering? Burgers come with fries, curly fries, or mashed potatoes. I appreciated and chose the curly fry option. They weren't really seasoned enough for my liking, though. In fact, I wasn't sure they were seasoned in the low lighting. I couldn't really tell until I ate my leftovers at home. Surprisingly, lettuce, tomato, and raw red onions are included in the price of the burger :) The bun was nothing to get excited about either, as hamburger buns rarely are.

Verdict? Don't eat at the bar. Go for the beer, not the food.

Library Alehouse
2911 Main Street
Santa Monica, CA 90405
(310) 314-4855
Library Alehouse on Urbanspoon


Indian Food Research Conclusions

Lunch special at India's Sweets and Spices

Akbar Cuisine of India: mango lassis that are dyed with food coloring and about to go bad, unfriendly service, not bad flavor in the main dishes but their selection of 8 vegetarian dishes left a lot to be desired in terms of variety unless you love potatoes.

All India Cafe: Mysteriously overrated. Stay away from the bland palak paneer.

Ambala Dhaba: Nice atmosphere, but only a couple of notches above the healthy Indian places in terms of flavor. Bland samosas, watery tamarind chutney, small portions, blender noises.

Annapurna Cuisine: The best. Inexpensive daily vegetarian lunch buffet allows you to try many different delectable dishes.

Dhaba Cuisine of India: Nice atmosphere, terrible acoustics, totally unexciting Indian food with a Californian twist. I think it's the California part that kills their food, though they have apparently been around for 30 years.

Gate of India
: Atmosphere might be nice if not for the neon sign in the window that casts a red glow over a decent part of the restaurant. Rude service. Food wasn't bad but didn't impress me. Still, I'd go here over Akbar, Pradeeps, or Dhaba.

India's Tandoori: Good for takeout, but why is the chutney so green?

Jaipur Cuisine of India: I've only had takeout, so not sure about the atmosphere, but the food was delicious and the tamarind chutney wasn't watery, finally!

Nawab of India: Pricey, small portions, and small lunch buffet. However, I think this is my second favorite place in terms of flavor. Nice atmosphere with tablecloths and candles. Will win future visits from me.

Pradeeps: The light cooking completely kills the flavor.

Shan Halal: Not a restaurant, just a sweets and meats shop and small grocery store. Great service, but I think better sweets are elsewhere (though I don't yet know where).

Udupi Palace: Good service, food had potential although I wasn't totally thrilled with what I ordered. See Little India review.

Restaurant Review #20: Udupi Palace, Artesia, Orange County

On Sunday I went to Little India in Artesia. I wanted to make it in time for a lunch buffet, but since I had to sleep in and take care of some other things, I had to settle for an early dinner. I went to Udupi Palace on instinct--it seemed to have some semblance of atmosphere and plenty of Indian diners. That it was vegetarian didn't hurt, either.

As an appetizer I ordered kancheepurum idli since it said "weekends only" next to it. It was also the only appetizer with no description, and I had no idea what it was, so it seemed like the logical thing to order, based on Amy's theory of trying as many new foods as possible. I learned that this dish is made of yellow split moong dhal, black pepper, cumin, asafetida, ghee, curry leaves, coriander leaves, turmeric, chilies, and ginger. I was served 2 of these fluffy yet dense cakes with a side of coconut chutney and a small bowl of rasam. Rasam is a heavily spiced lentil soup wtih a tomato and/or tamarind base. My waiter seemed very intent on giving me a second bowl in spite of my protest that I needed to save room for my entree, so I let him. Honestly, I could have filled up on my $3.50 appetizer alone even before the second bowl of soup.

I ordered vegetable korma as my main course. This is not a dish I usually order, which is why I ordered it. There were 10 curries to choose. There were a lot of other things on the menu too--dosas and uthapams--but for some reason I just don't get that excited about any bread-based course, although I probably should have. In fact, I think I definitely made a mistake in ordering. I should have either ordered one of the large plates that would have allowed me to sample everything, or a dosa. I saw other tables receiving absolutely enormous, beautiful dosas. They were quite possible 2 feet in diameter, making for quite a presentation. Given that the plates were about half the size, I imagine they were a bit of a challenge to eat, but wow, they looked cool.

My generous bowl of vegetable korma was served on a large plate along with plenty of rice, raita, a wheat tortilla-like bread, a crispy flat bread, and a mysteriously lonely single lemon pickle (which was excellent, but why did they not give me more?). I was happy about this combination plate deal. However, the rice was quite overcooked and mushy. I was too full to eat much of the dish, but it was quite good, although not mind-blowing, especially given the soggy rice.

I have 2 meals' worth of leftovers and I was out the door for $13.50. The service was mostly attentive although I was kind of confused when my meal seemed to suddenly end without my having done anything to signal that I was finished. The timing was fine, because I was full, it just seemed odd. There were still plenty of empty tables. Maybe the waitress was psychic. I went to the restroom on my way out, and unfortunately there were trash cans with discarded food and trays of dirty dishes right where I had to stand to wait. That was pretty repulsive.

You, like me, may not know much about the differences between northern and southern Indian food. According to marimari.com, "the main difference between northern and southern Indian cuisine is that northern food is less spicy and more subtly spiced than the southern counterpart. Cow's milk is also used as a base in the north instead of coconut milk as in the south. Southern Indian cuisine is also distinctive in its use of curry leaves and mustard seed. Coconut milk, yogurt, and oil are used rather than cream and ghee, which are used by the northerners. Southern dishes called Korma are generally mild, although anything prefixed by Masala is likely to be hot."

I feel compelled to learn more about Indian food, since my grocery store and restaurant visits have made it painfully obvious to me how little I actually know about my so-called favorite food (tied with sushi, that is). Here are some websites I found helpful.

A "complete guide to Indian food"

A helpful glossary of Indian food terms

Another one

Udupi Palace
18935 Pioneer Blvd
Artesia, CA 90701

Restaurant Review #19: Shan Halal, Artesia, Orange County

After my meal at Udupi Palace, I wanted to go to the spice shop and to another grocery store but I decided to do my wallet a favor and settle for a sweet shop. Or maybe I was just chickening out from the further self-imposed mental discomfort of being an outsider in Little India. At any rate, I found a sweets and meats shop (a very odd combination, if you ask me, but I must be missing something) with a huge selection and I did something I rarely do: I actually asked for help. And help I got! One of the employees, who may have been an owner or a manager, loaded up a box of sweets for me--one of everything in the refrigerated display case, and two of his favorite. The majority of the sweets were made primarily of sweetened condensed milk, making them a bit like non-chocolate fudge.

Assorted Indian sweets

The dark brown circular thing is gulab jamun, the white-iced orange thing is carrot halva (totally different from middle eastern tahini-based halva), three more halvas, and I don't really know what the other stuff was. The yellow ball was the best and most different, I thought, as was the halva (I think) that had a faint rose flavor. The halvas could have all used a stronger flavor as they tasted a little too similar.

A deep orange ball which you can't see in this photo was the most intriguing, as it tasted like Thanksgiving dinner, like the essence of all the dishes somehow combined into this ball. If I returned, I'd get the yellow ball and the gulab jamun, and try some new stuff. Or I'd try a new place. Everything was good enough to devour rather quickly but you know me, always in search of amazing. I think I need to go to one of those more crowded places more in the main drag of Pioneer Blvd.

Shan Halal Meat and Grocery
18743 Pioneer Blvd, Ste 102 & 103
Artesia, CA 90701
Closed Mondays

Restaurant Review #18: Ambala Dhaba, Westwood

In spite of thinking that it was impossible to do better than Annapurna, which I had the joy of trying last weekend, I felt it necessary to continue my Indian food research, perhaps in search of something equally good yet different. 85 miles, 2 hours of driving, 5 gallons of premium gas, 1 parking ticket, 3 grocery stores, 2 restaurants, and $130 later, I am here to report to you the results of this weekend's adventures in Indian food.

Friday night I went to Ambala Dhaba, which serves homestyle northern Indian food. This restaurant originated in Artesia, but I went to the Westwood location.

Some Google research for you: A dhaba is a small open eating place on the road side offering inexpensive Punjabi dishes. Punjabi (sometimes spelled Panjabi) is the language of the Punjab regions of India and Pakistan, where the city of Ambala is located.

As an adjective, the word "punjabi" qualifies anything or anyone that is related to either Punjab or the Punjabi language, such as the speakers of Punjabi, inhabitants of Punjab or the Punjabi cuisine of the region (northwestern India).

My immediate reaction to Ambala Dhaba was that I liked it. It actually has atmosphere, unlike pretty much every other restaurant I have dined at recently. The lighting is low but not too low, the tables and chairs are made of a decorative wrought iron, and there is some kind of straw hut type thing going on inside. And it was so pleasantly warm when I stepped inside from the crisp night air. I was also excited about the menu, which had a good selection of every category of dishes (appetizers, breads, meat dishes, vegetarian dishes, drinks, desserts. . . you get the picture).

Unfortunately, I was less excited when I took a bite of my samosa. The potato filling was lacking something--spices, for example. The samosa was served in mint and tamarind chutney, which I did not approve of for two reasons: 1. I will decide if I want chutney on my samosa or not, thank you and 2. the samosa should have been able to stand alone without needing chutney for flavoring.

Samosa bathed in mint and tamarind chutney

The entrees did not excite me much more, though they were pretty good. My friend had the chicken tikka masala, which I personally don't count as Indian food, since it isn't an authentic dish, but rather one that originated in the 1960's due to British influence. I'd never actually tried it before, and I thought it was pretty good. The chicken was moist, and the dish had a full spiced flavor. The sauce was intensely tomatoey, in a good way, although I think it was something else and not tomato that made it taste so intense. Still, whatever that ingredient was, it highlighted the tomato flavor. I thought the dish could have been a tad hotter, but my friend actually thought it was too hot. Alas, I have been eating spicy food all my life and probably have an above-average tolerance for heat.

I had the mattar paneer, which is generally one of my favorite dishes, though it isn't always made the same way. Sometimes it's creamy, and sometimes it's not. It's also a dish I know how to make at home (the recipe I use is not creamy). It was not creamy here, and tasted quite similar to my recipe, which lead me to think that Ambala Dhaba's recipe was very authentic, because my cookbook is very authentic. However, since it didn't taste different from my recipe, I wasn't all that excited about it, and it could have been hotter. Also, the portions were small and rice was not included (nor were we asked if we wanted a side of rice).

Chicken tikka masala (back) and mattar paneer (front)

I enjoyed the naan and mint chutney thoroughly, but the tamarind chutney was watery and not spicy at all. Also, they only served carrot pickles, which I think are the least exciting of the pickles, as they don't offer the wonderful flavor explosion that you get with, say, a lemon or mango pickle.

I decided against dessert after being relatively unimpressed with the rest of my food. In spite of my criticism though, this is some of the better Indian food I've had in LA. However, I've had a lot of mediocre Indian food in LA, so maybe that's not saying much. I might eat here again, because I liked the atmosphere, the naan, and the mint chutney, and because the menu is extensive. Maybe I'm just over mattar paneer. One drawback to the otherwise lovely atmosphere is the blender noises when the lassis are being prepared (shouldn't the blender go in the kitchen, where we can't hear it?) and not-too-friendly service.

I chose Ambala Dhaba based on a recommendation on Chowhound that it was the most authentic Indian food on the Westside. Getindian.net, however, had a review of this place saying that the food was inedible. I don't agree with that, but found the opinion interesting. The LA Weekly said, ". . .Ambala Dhaba is an outpost of the Punjab, a branch of a restaurant noted on Artesia’s Little India strip for its fiery goat curries and the boiled-milk ice cream called kulfi. It’s probably the only thing resembling traditional Indian food on the Westside. Ambala Dhaba exemplifies the time-honored side of meaty northern Indian cooking: basic, direct food almost Islamic in attitude, Pakistani in intensity of flavor, but wholly Indian in its attention to fresh vegetables, crunchy snacks, and breads." Maybe they send all the good chefs to the Artesia branch, or maybe they serve blander versions of the same food

For other Indian food options (mostly on the Westside), check out my quick summary.

Ambala Dhaba
Homestyle Indian Food
1781 Westwood Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90024
15% discount with KCRW card (as of this writing)
Ambala Dhaba on Urbanspoon


Restaurant Review #17: Gaam--Coffee in Koreatown

If you can find this place, you're bound to love it. It's located on the second story of a plaza in Koreatown. You can't tell from the street that it's a plaza, but go around back and you'll discover that it's quite nice and full of other places to visit.

Gaam is the largest coffee shop I have ever been in--it used to be a billiard hall, I hear. The comfortable old Victorian-style furniture, arranged so that you feel like you're sitting in someone's living room, lends a homey atmosphere, although it does mean you are sitting further from your companions than usual. There is a lot (a lot) of open space in this establishment, but filing it with more tables would make it look either emptier or restaurant-like, which would detract from the atmosphere. The window coverings are definitely home-made, but I find that rather charming.

The menu is extensive and has interesting Asian drinks that you can't find at ordinary coffee shops. There is also a nice outdoor patio where the chairs are surprisingly comfortable chairs and umbrellas shade your eyes. The huge private bathrooms are elegant and have couches, plus signs warning you to not flush your toilet paper.

Gaam also sells old used cameras.

My only complaint is that I ordered a decaf coffee and got one refill and my tab was $6, which is awfully pricey. The other people I was with ordered lattes and cappucinos, which were also $6. I can't remember if these prices were listed on the menu--my decaf coffee was not on the menu, but I sure didn't think it would cost $6, even with a refill, which is free or very cheap at most establishments. The coffee was good though: strong and fresh.

Also, the music was a bit loud for a place where people go for conversation, but if you go outside, you can't hear it, and I'd imagine you could ask them to turn it down. Some acquaintances who are not Korean have told me that they have been made to feel unwelcome in various establishments in K-town, but my wholly non-Korean group didn't experience any hostility here.

3465 W. 6th St Ste 300
Los Angeles, CA 90020
(213) 383-2297
Gaam on Urbanspoon


Restaurant Review #16: Annapurna Cuisine, Culver City

My first plate

On my first visit, after just one bite, I was ready to proclaim this restaurant to be the best Indian food in LA. I took a second bite, of a different dish, just to be sure, and then made my proclamation out loud to my friend. On my second visit, I wasn't as enthralled. The food was still very good, it just wasn't mind-blowing. Maybe I just wasn't as hungry. Maybe I've been eating so much Indian food lately that it takes more to impress me. Who knows. I'm no longer sure I want to call it the very best, but maybe I just want an excuse to try more restaurants!

I went for the lunch buffet--why have just one dish when you can have 20? They have a lunch buffet daily (but are closed Mondays) for a mere $7 on weekdays and $10 on weekends, and this price includes a drink. You're probably thinking what I was--free coke, big deal. That doesn't even go with my meal. But by free drink, they mean a real drink! I had a mango lassi. It was the best mango lassi I've ever had. Sweet and tangy but not too much of eithier. Other lassis I've tried have been too yogurty, too sweet, going bad, made from a powdered mix, or drenched in food coloring. (Don't ever have a lassi at Akbar, because those last 4 descriptions apply to their mango lassis.)

I didn't really need the lassi though, in the sense that the food was not that spicy (as in hot). This is probably good in a buffet so that it accomodates as many people as possible. The food was richly spiced, so the lack of heat didn't even occur to me until later and I can't say I particular missed it. However, I do like to get my mouth nice and fiery once in a while.

I spent a good hour and a half savoring my food, and I probably could have taken longer if I didn't feel bad for my friend. Unfortunately, I did not write down the names of what I ate, and the menu and catering menu don't seem to have all the items that were on the buffet (which is kind of exciting, really). They had a number of items I had never tried before, including two things that I would classify as soup. They had plain basmati rice, vegetable biryani, naan, those crunchy flat round things, those colored crunchy things (and they actually tasted like something, for once), various curries (none of which are on the menu--no mattar paneer, palak paneer, chana masala, etc), salad, lemon/carrot pickle, 2 kinds of dessert, plain yogurt, raita, dal, and more. I didn't care for the dal, but I never do. I love lentils, but maybe I don't like yellow lentils, or maybe the primary flavor of this dish is always turmeric. I haven't figured out turmeric yet. I know it's a big deal in Indian food, but I don't think it tastes like anything, unless it's the only spice, in which case it tastes bad. Other than that, I don't really feel compelled to describe the flavors to you in detail. They were amazing. Go taste them for yourself. Also, you can check out their regular menu and catering menu on the website.

My second plate

As you may have noticed, mint and tamarind chutneys are conspicuously absent from my photographs. Unfortunately, this restaurant does not seem to have them. That is my only complaint. These are two of my favorite things, and they weren't on the buffet or the menu anywhere. Maybe they aren't south Indian items. I really have no idea. The only flavor of chutney they serve is coconut, which I think is a little narrow-minded. I also would have liked to see samosas on the buffet. It will be interesting to go back and see if they have a rotating buffet. I am a fan of rotating buffets, since I always like to try new things, even though it sometimes means I don't get to eat an old favorite.


The restaurant is very casual. Although the food is excellent and would certainly impress a foodie date, if you want to wine and dine your sweetie, this is not the place. The tables are kind of arranged in rows, there are no table cloths, the floor is tile (nice tile, but tile nonetheless), the workers wear matching green polo shirts, the chairs are made out of that metal tubing stuff, there's nothing exciting about the lighting, there's a TV screen on the wall, and it's in a strip mall. It's not as bad as the description suggests, but it's not ambient by any means. So I guess this is my other complaint. At my favorite Indian restaurant in St. Louis, India's Rasoi, they have an excellent, equally inexpensive lunch buffet, yet the restaurant has ambience and is date-perfect: table cloths, flowers, staggered tables, booths, low lighting at night, and always well-dressed and very attentive service. The service at Annapurna was attentive--they were good about getting rid of my old plates and refilling water. I did not find them to be excessively or frighteningly friendly, as I had read on Chowhound. The hostess was quite smiley, but the rest of the staff seemed fairly subdued. They were very unintrusive and quick to turn around the check.

I want to order one of those big aluminum catering things and keep it in my fridge so I can eat this stuff every day! And they're not too pricey, so I'd actually consider this. Better than eating those grocery store sorry excuse for Indian tv dinners. I will definitely return to this restaurant, hopefully with frequency, and that's not something I say often.

Annapurna Cuisine
10200 Venice Blvd.
Culver City, CA 90232
Phone: (310) 204-5500
Fax: (310) 204-3363
Annapurna Cuisine on Urbanspoon


Restaurants Open Until At Least 11pm

Not sure about day of the week restrictions on most of these. . . call ahead.

Toi 3 am
Anastasia's Asylum 1 am
Houstons 11pm
Cafe Crepe 11:30 pm
Broadway Deli 3 am
Sushi Roku 2 am
Musha 11:30 pm
Palms Restaurant 2 am
Mao's Kitchen 3 am on Fridays and Saturdays (10:30 the rest of the week)
Sanamluang Cafe

Restaurant Review #15: Cacao Coffee House, West LA

What is the difference between a coffee house and a coffee shop? Allow me to enlighten you. A coffee shop, as its name implies, is a place where you go primarily to shop for coffee, and a coffee house is a place that actually has atmosphere and encourages making yourself at home to chat, study, or use their free WiFi. Think Starbucks v. Independent.

At Cacao, I felt like the yuppie I may be accidentally becoming. It's a gritty, darkish, smoky place that lies somewhere between depressing and smug. Everyone there, except for the girl making the drinks, was male, which made me feel a little out of place. The customers had the air of being regulars and were clearly edgier and more fundamentally disgruntled than I. I was the bubbly, made-up, dressed-up girl.

The place is very small, with about 8 tables. There were tons of black and white photographs on the wall, indicating that Cacao most likely does the rotating artist show thing. The theme, as they describe it, is retro Hawaiian. I probably would have described it as African, based on the wooden sculptures. They have a fair number of those African masks that inspired Picasso and his contemporaries. (My brain is struggling but not quite recalling the other interesting things I learned about these masks back in modern art history class.)

I had a cup of decaf (the least-toxic thing to put into my body, I figured). You may be thinking that plain old decaf is not the greatest way to judge a coffee house, but I disagree--it's a basic item, and if they can't do that well, the expensive drinks probably aren't that great, either. It smelled excellent and hazelnutty and was freshly brewed; however, its strength was not to my liking. I would be quite happy with a cup of many shots of decaf espresso, so I'm hard to please in the arena of coffee strength. Thank you Europe for six months of amazing coffee. I'll never feel the same way about an Americano.

This is also, for some reason, a place where you can smoke indoors. Frankly, I was weirdly happy about this, non-smoker though I am: a smoke-free coffee shop or bar is not quite the same, and I have many fond nostalgic associations with cigarette smoke (and other damaging odors like car exhaust and gasoline--this is what happens when you travel to certain places).

I'll probably end up at Cacao again at some point, and I will probably enjoy myself, but since the place has a vaguely angry vibe and too much testosterone, neither of which jive well with me, I won't go out of my way for a revisit. Maybe I haven't given it enough of a chance though.

Cacao Coffee House
11609 Santa Monica Boulevard
West Los Angeles, CA 90025
6pm-3am daily

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