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Underwhelmed by Tamarin

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Underwhelmed by Tamarin

Lee by the Sea | Jun 13, 2004 01:04 AM

We just got back from Tamarin, a new "Indian Fusion" restaurant [9162 W. Olympic Bl]. Boy, were we underwhelmed.

As aficionados of Indian food from the time when there was only one Indian restaurant in L. A. (Paul Bhalla's, in Westwood), we've taken the opportunity to dine at many Indian restaurants on trips to London (favorite: Bombay Brasserie) and also in New York (favorite: Bay Leaf), as well as a great many here in L. A.

So when Irene Virbila virtually glowed about Tamarin in Wednesday's L. A. Times, we couldn't wait to try it. We made a point of ordering what she had. Here's what we got:

Samosas (spinach and cheese): These were good and also unusual in style. The outside crust was thicker than usual and not at all oily. It had a lot of crunch. The seasoning was pleasant; the two samosas came with a nice tamarind sauce and a few lettuce leaves. We think the samosas were baked rather than fried.

Eggplant bharta: Traditionally this is mostly eggplant, roasted meltingly soft and smoky over a live flame, then pureed and seasoned with layered Indian spicing. Virbila called Tamarin's "...smooth and smoky, lightened with fresh tomato and served with a stark cucumber raita." To start with, ours was served with nothing, certainly not a raita, which is yogurt-based. If it hadn't been labeled as bharta, we would have never guessed it-- it was chunky, had no tomato in its composition (though lots of chunks of onion), was loaded with green peas, and was a bright yellow color. To paraphrase a famous vice-presidential debate line, "I know eggplant, and sir, you're no eggplant." Fusion cuisine has to start from traditional and make something better. This was missing its very base. Also, its spicing was exceedingly bland.

Chicken with spinach: This was at least an accurate description of the contents. Virbila waxed poetic: "And when she simmers chicken in masses of spinach, the result is surprisingly delicate--enough to make a lifelong devotee of anyone who thinks of the green as Popeye fodder." Indian chicken with spinach, often called "chicken saag" on English menus, is closer to that description than Tamarin's was. Velvety smooth (helped along with a fat or oil component), delicately spiced, and with ample chunks of good chicken--that is the norm. Tamarin's version had spinach, spinach, more spinach, and a couple of chunks of moist chicken. It was bland to the point of absence of spicing, and in scant amount.

Portuguese Lamb Vindaloo: This was the best entree. On its own terms it was successful--nice multilayered spicing in the sauce, the well-integrated bite of the right amount of vinegar, good-flavored cubes of lamb that were not fatty, chunks of potato. Points off for tomato in the sauce, which is absolutely not part of the famous vindaloo of Portuguese Goa on the coast of India. But maybe the tomato is the fusion part. If only there had been enough of this dish to more than sample. The pricing of this restaurant should support serving more than cuisine minceur portions.

Garlic Naan: This is a bread that is baked on the inside of the tandoor. Perhaps the thinnest naan that I have ever been served, but it was the most successful fusion of our dinner, because the thin naan, lightly sprinkled with garlic and sundried tomato, worked well. It made a nice crunchy snack while we waited for our entrees. The naan was gone before they arrived.

Rice pudding: Usually called "kheer" on English menus, this was an excellent high-end version, laced with almonds and suffused with plenty of saffron. For once in the evening there was plenty for the two of us to share.

Spiced chai tea: No, Starbucks did not invent this. We have been enjoying chai as long as we have been dining Indian. The kitchen combines a good Indian tea and spices (think cinnamon and cardamom, and keep going), and brews the beverage. An ample amount of milk is added before it gets to you--there may be a milk crust in the cup or pitcher. I add sweetener; my wife doesn't. Chai was the worst item we were served at Tamarin. Thin and weak, with correspondingly little milkiness. It was as if someone had diluted the chai with half water.

Service was ordinary and unexceptional, certainly not Virbila's "considerate and professional." Professional waiters refill your glass with water when it is emptied during dinner. And when they do, they do not lean the pitcher against the rim of your glass to inoculate it with another diner's cold viruses.

The tab for our experience was $50. There is better elsewhere (try Nawab in Santa Monica or many others). We won't be back.

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