Chandni Indian Vegetarian – Quietly Colorful

chandni indian vegetarian, santa monica, los angeles, ca

Chandni Indian Vegetarian
1909 Wilshire Boulevard
Santa Monica, CA
310.839.0482

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.

chandni indian vegetarian, santa monica, los angeles, ca - naan
naan-buffet option
chandni indian vegetarian, santa monica, los angeles, ca - menu
the girl likes options

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.

chandni indian vegetarian, santa monica, los angeles, ca - bengan bharta
bengan bharta is little yellower, different
chandni indian vegetarian, santa monica, los angeles, ca - chutney
chili and tamarind – amateurs
The 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.

chandni indian vegetarian, santa monica, los angeles, ca - hot sauce
red hot sauce – intermediate
chandni indian vegetarian, santa monica, los angeles, ca - naan
continents cut into countries

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.

chandni indian vegetarian, santa monica, los angeles, ca - mixed vegetables
curried green giant
chandni
green giant is paneer cheesy

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.

chandni indian vegetarian, santa monica, los angeles, ca - vegetable samosa
eat in the car – better than in n out

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.

chandni indian vegetarian, santa monica, los angeles, ca - vegetable samosa
very rarely a samosa makes it home
chandni indian vegetarian, santa monica, los angeles, ca - garlic naan
garlic: naan-vampire food

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.

chandni indian vegetarian, santa monica, los angeles, ca - saag paneer
saag paneer, never soggy
chandni indian vegetarian, santa monica, los angeles, ca - bindhi masala (okra)
oh. oh. OH! okra.

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.

chandni indian vegetarian, santa monica, los angeles, ca - moong daal (lentils)
pussycat daal

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 indian vegetarian, santa monica, los angeles, ca - stuffed bell pepper
stuffed pepper swims in masala
chandni indian vegetarian, santa monica, los angeles, ca - stuffed bell pepper
sweet, soft, ososexy

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 **

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  • Mick

    Grew up in South Africa where curry is big. There was a guy in the market called the curry king. he sat in a high chair with a big spoon and mounds of spice all around him. you told him what kind of curry you wanted and he made it. Mick http://rockwatching.wordpress.com

  • jackt

    Sorry- love your blog but I don’t do veggies. :)

    Jackt the Carnivore.

  • Anonymous

    funny…I had Chandni last night! Great food for being vegetarian…very nice people too. JP

  • swati

    dear sarah,
    so you had okra/
    ladies-fingers/bhindi/ddhyarosh.
    when we make this stuff at home the ting-a-ling taste comes from ground up cilantro seeds.
    most north indian curries have this very ingredient to make its mark on the palate.

    will you be able to face indian cooking again?!?

  • sarah

    mick: that sounds, in one word, AWESOME. i would love to go up to the curry king (does he wear a crown of cilantro?!?!?) and say, Your Heighnie, i would like a bowl of fire, thank you.

    jackt: do you take fiber supplements?!?!

    jp: were you so rone-ree, so rone-ree? LOL! i know you love urkel

    swati: lol! i looove okra. and cilantro – is not bad when i can’t see it, and i don’t mind the leaves, which have a far milder taste than the STEMS, nor the seeds, which seem to have a completely different taste overall. :)

  • onetomato

    i love veggies. i’m that weird girl that eats all the bok choy when veryone else is fighting for the protein…hee hee. i guess i must’ve been an elephant in my past life.
    and i also drove leisurely along wilshire the other day. it’s so funny, you notice all those angry people driving along and shaking their fists at other drivers. oh wait, i just did that the other day too.

  • Catherine

    you’ll find me driving leisurely through the westside when it’s half past 10 pm. and here’s why, NO ONE ELSE IS ON THE ROAD. and most likely i just got out of a deep tissue massage so i have alllll the time in the world. honk as you may mr. and mrs. road rage, but at this time of the night i ain’t going above 35 mph unless it’s to run a red light.

    :D

    and, i agree; indian buffets are BY FAR the least sketchy and most delicious of them all. it’s true, i even heard the answer myself when one indian buffet looked into the mirror and asked the very same question.

    OK, i think i’m nearing the character max for this comment so i better stop here before i get cut-of

  • abraxis

    hmmm. Looks good but,

    I’m one of them thar carnivores…

    and I like roti better than naan! =P

  • swati

    if you want FIRE,
    get hold of some Andhra coastal cooking. The spices of south india are different (you are having mainly punjabi food) and these southies do know how to use chillies!
    one spoonful of their own variety of rasam, and you will feel like Krakatoa exploding in 1848.

  • joanh

    I’ll have to take my mom who is a vegetarian there to try it out! She is new to Indian food, but I think she likes it as they have a lot of options for vegetarians.

    Samosas for the ride home- GENIUS! I will have to do that next time!

  • Tmblweed

    are you talking about the church around Wilshire & Bundy, sort of across Bundy, in front of Ralphs? I think it’s a Christian Science church. (Then again, both Christian Scientists & Scientologists have strange views of science…)

    Btw, how much did the buffet cost?

    Thanks for your entries! It always makes my day brighter when I read them!

  • Elaine

    OMG! I must take you know who here!! Vegetarian heaven!! Thanks Sarah!

  • Deb

    I’ve been eating at Chandni over the past 12 years. It is the BEST Indian vegetarian food in LA hands down – I’ve tried ’em all. I find their food (and spices) to be incredibly fresh and found a few of your comments objectionable. Contrary to the many other Indian restaurants I’ve tried, the food at Chandni is never greasy and the flavors are not diminished by the use of hot spices that overwhelm the dish. Most of my Indian friends have told me that Indian food in America tends to be considerably hotter with spice than the norm. Maybe your palate has been burned off. Chandni is not shack-like, has a nice atmosphere (not fancy, just nice), serves great healthy food at a very reasonable price and has great service. What more do you want? Not a bad place for “star” sightings either. Oh, and the server’s name is Mahesh in case any of you are wondering…

    • Sybil

      Lifetime vegetarian here, weighing in. I have been eating at Chandni from the beginning when they were in Culver City. I am just wondering why spell-check wasn’t used on Sarah’s review. An artist made the painting on the wall for the restaurant (unshacklike.) And I kept thinking, why doesn’t she know Mahesh’s name if she goes there so often? He is a delight to know, not a caricature from a tv show. I too, know the food is incredibly fresh. Vipan, one of the cooks told me that many of the “vegetarian” restaurants around town use animal fat in cooking while Chandni only uses vegetable oils and clarified butter. If I lived next door to Chandni, I would eat there every day. If you are a person who likes routine, you can absolutely count on the high quality of the food, the methods of cooking remain the same and the standard of service is always excellent and the dishes for each day of the week do not vary. However, you may always order something different and the whole Kumar family will be happy to accomodate your requests within the realm of vegetarian cooking. Enjoy!

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