Friday was not an auspicious night for dinner at Surya, the pretty, small Indian restaurant on Third Street near Crescent Heights. The hostess, who doubled as our waitress, confided that Thursday through Saturday nights had become very busy -- way too busy, it would seem, for the abilities of the kitchen and staff, down to the lone valet. We waited a good 10 minutes at the curb for him to take our car keys, then sat for well over an hour before our first food came (a complimentary basket of papadam had long since vanished). We might have had a second round of drinks, had anyone offered. But the too few waiters and busboys were running full tilt, studiously avoiding eye contact. The food itself seemed rushed, underrealized, not very interesting -- Indian lite, we remarked, underspiced for tender Western palates.
And yet, there was something appealing about the place itself -- the high walls and ceiling painted in the colors of saffron, chile and green chutney, the stylish large photos of red slippers and ancient Indian temples -- that made me want to come back.
I‘m extremely glad I did.
On a much slower weeknight, it was easy to glimpse the warmth and soul and charm of the little restaurant. Many of the diners were clearly regulars, devotees of the food and owners; the owners themselves were friendly and conversational. And the food . . . the food seemed a completely different entity. It’s true that the chef makes an effort to avoid the least healthful aspects of Indian cuisine, such as the wanton use of ghee (clarified butter) and cooking everything to death, but when the kitchen isn‘t besieged, the results of his vigilance can be quite revelatory.
All the entrees can be ordered a la carte or, for $4 more, as a dinner with a vegetable, dal, rice and naan. We preferred to order a variety of entrees for the table, with side orders of the good chunky raita (yogurt with cucumbers), the spicy hot housemade tomato chutney and an assortment of the breads. Surya makes very good naan, roti or chapati, and the layered, buttery paratha.
Tandoori dishes are, perhaps, the most traditional preparation at Surya; they come sputtering and hissing from the tandoor oven with curls of scorched onion and fresh wedges of lemon to squeeze to cool things down. The yogurt-and-garlic-marinated chicken is red and juicy and absolutely delicious. Rack of lamb marinated in rosemary and ginger is more unusual -- rosemary in an Indian restaurant? -- but equally delicious. Even more unusual is an appetizer, a good-sized, thick slab of sushi-grade ahi tuna coated with chile and spices and then seared in the tandoor so that the inside is still very rare. I didn’t love it, but I‘m still thinking about it, and would happily try it again.
Chicken tikka masala, boneless cubes of chicken in a smooth, buttery tomato sauce, has a lot of flavor without the usual richness of the dish. Add aromatic fenugreek to that same sauce, and you have the chicken makhanwala -- don’t order these two chickens at the same meal, they‘re too much alike. Lamb stewed in saag, a creamed spinach curry, has a great dense long-cooked meatiness that’s especially good on these nippy spring nights.
Vegetable dishes are the most obviously altered for low-fat contemporary tastes, and some are none the tastier for it. On that busy Friday night, Surya‘s roasted eggplant seemed too rapidly cooked, its onions almost raw, its flavorings not yet integrated; I missed the smokiness, oiliness and long-caramelized onion flavorings of more traditional began bharta. Bhindi masala also hadn’t been left in the pan nearly long enough, and was a little slimy, whereas the beauty of the traditional curried okra is that, so long as no moisture is added, the pods remain as slime-free as string beans, even as they absorb the spices they‘re cooked with. On a slower evening, when the kitchen was less hurried, the aloo gobi, cauliflower and potatoes sauteed in a spicy masala, again lacked the specific familiar long-cooked flavor and integrity of a more traditional version, but it was wonderful -- al dente, spicy, a bit sweet -- in its own right.
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Oh, and the plain rice pilau is chock-full of pleasures; the saffron-flavored basmati is mined with crunchy fried cumin, crisp caramelized onions and sweet green peas.
The dessert menu is too short: a virtuous but good enough low-fat rice pudding, and two kinds of Dreyer’s ice cream.
It‘s possible to have really wonderful food at Surya -- and, clearly, less than wonderful food. But a charm and warmth and friendliness persists, even in the middle of a chaotic rush. If I lived any closer, I’d be one of those regulars, chatting with the owner, eating lamb chops and naan, and downing chai (Indian spiced tea) by the quart.
8048 W. Third St., Los Angeles; (323) 653-5151. Open weekdays for lunch, every night for dinner. Beer and wine. Valet parking. Entrees $8.25--$15.95. AE, D, MC, V.