All sorts of significant religious events took place in the past few days. Ramadan is ongoing and Yom Kippur was on Wednesday. Wednesday was also Dussehra, the final day of the nine-day Indian festival of Navaratri. This is one of the most important Hindu festivals of the year.
Although festivities vary by region, the focus of Dussehra is the victory of good over evil.
On this day, according to the Ramayana, the hero Rama defeated the demon king Ravana. It is also the day that the goddess Durga (pictured left) slayed the hated Buffalo demon, Mahishasura, which no other god (feminists note, they were all males) was able to defeat.
Amongst N's Gujarati community, Navaratri and Dussehra is the time to feast and dance. There are two fun group dances, both similarly danced in a huge circle, one called garba and the other, my personal favorite, dandiya ras (performed with dancers percussively tapping their partner's set of batons, dandiya, against their own dandiya in rhythm to the gradually increasing tempo of the music). Unfortunately, with N in grad school and holding down a full-time job, there would be no celebrations in our household this year. Besides, I had to go south to L.A. for a work-related project.
After arriving in L.A. Wednesday afternoon, I was craving something healthier than what I had for lunch. In a word: vegetables. With Dussehra on my mind, I decided to head to what is perhaps the best Indian restaurant in California, Bombay Café.
I say “best” with some hesitation. Bombay Café is not at the same high level of dining as the finest Indian eateries in New York or London. Appropriate to the Santa Monica neighborhood where it is located, the atmosphere at Bombay Café is very casual. More than one diner donned flip-flops and shorts.
The somewhat tame level of spicing also caters to the predominantly non-Indian crowd that dines there. The chef-owner of Bombay Café, Neela Paniz (I wonder why she didn't name her restaurant Chez Paniz?), has reinterpreted Indian classics to suit her clientele’s tastes.
Usually that would be a red warning flag for me to stay away. But, not unlike the way Charles Phan tweaked traditional Vietnamese cooking at the beloved Slanted Door in San Francisco, Paniz has managed to successfully craft a menu full of interesting choices and daily changing specials unseen at other Indian restaurants.
Take for example the frankies.
These are traditional Bombay street food, typically associated with beachside food stalls. Similar to Mexican burritos, frankies consist of meat or vegetables wrapped in flat bread and served with sweet and hot chutneys. My vegetarian cauliflower-filled frankie, which admittedly was different and milder than those I’ve devoured at Bombay’s Breach Candy beach, was nevertheless satisfying. Being a pickle fan, I appreciated the pickled cauliflower on the side, a type of pickle you are usually served in people’s homes, but rarely in restaurants.
My starter was a Paniz invention, the “eggplant devi.” Roasted eggplant slices are topped with tomato chutney, garlicky yogurt sauce and cilantro. It’s one of N’s favorite eggplant dishes.
Because I had just read Mika’s mouth-watering description of almond kheer as a traditional Navaratri dessert on her blog Green Jackfruit, I decided to sample Bombay Café’s rice-based kheer for dessert. I tried my best to finish the heavenly cardamom-infused rice pudding, but I just couldn’t manage.
Paniz shares her recipes from Bombay Café in her cookbook, which I use all the time and highly recommend.
I'm getting so hungry writing this that I just may have to head back there for lunch before I make my way back up Route 5 to San Francisco!
I'd like to wish my Indian readers out there a belated Happy Navaratri and Dussehra!
UPDATE (ADDED SATURDAY 12 PM)
I did indeed have lunch at Bombay Café yesterday. This time I ate their Lamb Frankie, which was perfectly spicy and even better than the veggie version. The level of heat was just what I like in a frankie: my nose started to run, but not so hot that my eyes started to tear.
At lunch, the frankies are served as a thali, which at this restaurant means they are accompanied by a cooling dish of raita (yogurt), kachumber (salad of chopped cucumber, tomato and onion), sev puri (crispy fried snack food), and more of that lovely cauliflower and carrot pickle. I washed it all down with my favorite Indian drink, a nimbu (fresh lime) soda.
My long drive home was fueled by my cup of masala chai, which they graciously packed to go.