Indian cooking is, of course, some of the most varied and delightful on earth, the repository of a hundred spices, a thousand marvels and 10,000 recipes for lentils. From the sort of curried Country Captain chicken George Washington enjoyed 200 years ago to today's tandoori-chicken pizza, each generation of Americans has found a way to make Indian cooking its own.
But just as the '60s generation practically forced its successors to accept its proclivities for guitar rock, goat cheese and sitcoms as universal law, so too has it seemed to mandate its own, Moosewood-inflected style of Indian food. Too many Indian restaurants – particularly neighborhood Indian restaurants catering to Americans – still feature the sort of musty bong-hit exoticism that was pretty much played out by 1969: bedspreads on the walls, Ravi Shankar on the stereo. Even George Harrison must have gotten over this sort of thing by now.
But next door to the Los Feliz 7-Eleven and just up the block from the tofu-rockin' coffee shop Fred 62, the brand new Electric Lotus is the kind of countercultural neighborhood restaurant post-Beck Los Angeles has needed, a curry shop self-aware enough to play with its customers' fixed ideas about curry shops; the mellow vibes of the East replaced by the jangling dissonances and shiny surfaces of Bollywood; the dusty hippie palette transmuted into colors bright enough to sear afterimages onto your eyeballs.
If Electric Lotus is India, it is the wired India, a place where ancient bazaars suddenly sprout satellite dishes, where C++ has replaced English as a universal language, and monks conceal flip phones and Palm Pilots in the folds of their flowing saffron robes.
The proprietor blasts – and has apparently even produced – bhangra CDs and qawaali tapes; the staff is hip to healing herbs. You will probably find more navel rings per capita at Electric Lotus than anywhere else in town. “We believe in good karma,'' reads a legend on the back of the takeout menu.
The first thing you should know about Electric Lotus is that its chef, who cooks otherwise fairly orthodox Pakistani and northern Indian food, tends to use olive oil as a cooking medium instead of the usual ghee, which means that most of the vegetarian dishes are completely without animal residue. This cheers the legions of Silver Lake vegans who were presumably unable until now to enjoy even the super-vegetarian food of Gujarat because of all the butter in it.
But olive oil, along with the chef's simplification of recipes and shortish cooking times, also has the effect of making Indian spices seem sharper, clearer, than you may have ever tasted them before. Indian food made with olive oil is like a CD of a Debussy nocturne experienced after a lifetime of listening to the piece on LP: brighter and more detailed to be sure, but also missing some warmth, presence, noise.
The stewed eggplant dish bertha, for example, seems closer to Sicilian caponata than to the fragrant, spicy mash found in other Indian restaurants in Los Angeles, the texture of the vegetable more distinct, the piercing flavors of garlic and ginger unmuddied in the midrange. Chana masala, chickpea curry, bright yellow with turmeric, almost resembles a salsa in its clean, spare spicing; the flavor of toasted cumin in the aloo gobi sings as clearly, as distinctively, against the rounded funkiness of cooked cauliflower as a solo
soprano against a choir. The spinach, though cooked to a drab khaki hue, can seem almost French in its delicacy. (The dryish breads and pastries – naan, paratha, roti, samosas – suffer more obviously from the substitution of oil for ghee.)
But the restaurant's chicken curry, a mellow, soothing, sauce-intensive thing served in a small copper vessel, displays each spice like a stave in a score: coriander, clove, turmeric, pepper, garlic, ginger. You can get the chicken curry – along with naan, bland chicken tikka, three vegetable curries, a potato samosa and rice – for about $10 and eat leftovers for the rest of the week.
My friend John, an amiable health freak who tends to go on a little too long about anything that once had a face, was extremely excited about the possibilities at Electric Lotus.
“Are there ayurvedic dishes
on the menu too?'' he bubbled to the chef.
“Oh no,'' the owner replied. “The taste of those herbs is far too strong. If I prepared food according to ayurvedic principles, I promise you would be clawing it out of your mouth quite immediately.''
4656 Franklin Ave., Los Feliz; (323) 953-0040. Open daily for lunch and dinner. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, $7-$20. No alcohol. Lot parking. Takeout and delivery. MC, V, AE. Recommended dishes: bertha, chana masala, chicken curry.