Jammed into a strip mall, sharing a parking lot with a doughnut parlor, a kebab house and a check-cashing emporium, Mayura may be the last place you would expect to find a fine Indian restaurant. But just up the road from the Culver City hamburger stands and Thai restaurants that draw lunching studio workers, not far from divey Indian snack shops, grocery stores and cheap vegetarian joints but nowhere near anyplace you might stop for high-quality regional Indian cuisine, there is Mayura. On a Friday night, packed with students and the studio crowd, as well as three-generation Indian families, Mayura jams. Women in bright saris gesture with scraps of dosa, small children dash between tables, a flat screen in the corner flashes impossibly saturated Bollywood clips — it’s a scene from Cochin, or at least Artesia’s Little India neighborhood, just a few hundred yards from sound stages and slick office buildings.
The various schools of south Indian cooking form one of the great cuisines of the world: mostly vegetarian, intricately spiced, and laced with the flavors of tamarind and coconut, black pepper and cloves, onion, ginger and fermented grains. In big parts of Africa and East Asia, “Indian” food is automatically assumed to be south Indian, and dishes like avial, iddly and utthapam are as common as French fries. Even in L.A.’s Indian restaurants, you are almost as likely to see the lentil doughnuts called vada as you are tandoori chicken, and in Artesia’s Little India neighborhood the restaurants and snack shops compete on the size of their masala dosa, thin crepes rolled around spiced potatoes — some are as long and big around as Louisville Sluggers. (Mayura’s dosas are as good as you’re going to see this side of Artesia’s Pioneer Boulevard. I like the one called “ghee roast,” crisp and saturated with butter, which comes to the table shaped into a kind of golden-brown dunce cap — there seems to be no end to the dosa, which if unrolled might extend as far as a roll of paper towels.)
Mayura specializes in the cooking of Kerala, the strip of southern India that touches the Arabian Sea, a cosmopolitan region, shaped by a thousand years of spice trading, whose food is influenced by Nayar Hindus, Muslims, Syrian Christians and even an ancient community of Jews. Kerala, sometimes called the Spice Coast, is famous for Malabar black pepper — perhaps the best in the world — cinnamon, cardamom and curry leaves, bananas and coconuts. Even if you have eaten in other local southern Indian restaurants, places serving the famous dishes of Hyderabad and Andhar Pradesh, a lot of the food may be new to you: appam, saucer-shaped rice-flour pancakes as pure-white as fried snow; complexly spiced fish curry with undernotes of tamarind and garlic; ven pongal, a peppery concoction of rice lashed with cumin, cashews and ungodly amounts of melted butter. You probably have seen avial, a Kerala-style dish of julienne vegetables sautéed with coconut, which has made it onto many local Indian menus, but Mayura’s version is especially good, luscious but still slightly crunchy, as useful as a condiment as it is satisfying as a main dish.
As an Indian restaurant on the Westside, Mayura is a full-service establishment, not serving alcohol but not objecting when you bring in your own, and preparing the usual plates of chicken tikka and lamb korma but cooking them in a separate kitchen so that vegetarians need not fear the errant bit of flesh in their bisi bele bath. Mayura’s cooking is halal, compliant with Islamic dietary laws, and the menu includes Pakistani meat dishes like nehari and haleem, as well as special iftar, postfast buffets during Ramadan (and special Muslim dishes on Fridays), although posters to the message boards at the Muslim food site Zabihah.com complain that the dining room is dotted with Hindu idols. While the restaurant specializes in south Indian cooking, a lot of the food seems to come from the north — the channa bhatura, practically the emblem of Punjabi vegetarian cooking, is actually one of the better versions in town, the intense spicing of the chickpea stew balanced by the bland, supple oiliness of the puffy rounds of deep-fried bread.
For the most part, though, the dullest cooking in the restaurant tends to be the modified versions of gravy-intensive northern Indian dishes: a gunky chicken tikka masala, fresh Indian cheese swamped in brown goo, lifeless cauliflower cooked with potatoes.
There are certain things you can predict about a meal here. Your table will become littered with little stainless-steel bowls of rasam, a thin, tart curry that seems to come as a condiment with almost everything in the restaurant, and almost as many bowls of tart mango chutney, shredded-coconut chutney and raita. You will notice that most of the Indians crumble bits of pappadam onto their rice, a crunchy starch-on-starch effect, before they spoon over a curry. You will, in fact, end up eating a lot of starch: the vada lentil doughnuts; the steamed fermented-rice capsules called iddly; the enormous fermented-rice pancakes called utthapam, which almost resemble deep-dish pizza when you get them topped with vegetables and cheese. If they happen to be offering the special Kerala-style biryani — your best bet is on weekends — order it without question. The fluffiness of the rice and the sharpness of the spicing are superb.
Mayura, 10406 Venice Blvd., Culver City, (310) 559-9644 or www.mayurarestaurant.com. Tues.-Sun., 11 a.m.-10 p.m. No alcohol. Takeout, delivery and catering. Lot parking. Amex, MC, V. Dinner for two, food only, $16-$30. Recommended dishes: appam with Kerala fish curry; ven pongal; avial; utthapam.