In England, Indian food is commonly referred to as “curry”. Let’s go out for a curry, one would say. And, in a land not blessed with spices and, until a couple of decades ago, known for its bland food, it’s not surprising that the former Empire so wholeheartedly embraced fenugreek and cumin. Indian food is probably the most popular type of food in the UK.
I wish it were so in the States. Indian restaurants are not hard to find but they all have the same menus, the same ambiance of fake leather banquettes and Indian prints, the same dry chicken tandoori and not a spark of imagination. The food just tastes the same everywhere you go. Undaunted, I press on every time I happen to see an Indian restaurant I hadn’t noticed before, in hope of finding my neighbourhood curry, even if it means driving a few miles rather than walking around the block.
I noticed Great India Cafe, at the corner of Ventura Boulevard and Topanga Canyon Boulevard in Woodland Hills, during one of my forays in the Valley but never stopped, until last night, when my craving for Indian food approached pregnancy levels. Unfazed by the heat that finally hit us, I walked into this tiny and unassuming restaurant whose walls are painted a pleasant orange hue. There are no fake leather banquettes but Indian prints are on the walsl and funky embroidered tablecloths underneath glass tops.
Indian people are born hosts – always charming, smiling, self-effacing and eager to please. A little girl was sitting on the patio outside, with her tiny grandmother, enveloped in a silver sari, both of them crouched over the screen of an i-Pad. The moment we sat down, the couple sitting behind us started making sounds of appreciation for the food they were eating – good sign.
The menu is pretty extensive and it does include chicken tikka masala, samosa, tandoori and all the other crowd pleasers but there is a separate chef’s special sheet and large space is given to lamb. Another good sign.
The Behl Puri I ordered as appetizer is tagged as a railway snack and it looks like a bird’s nest made of puffed rice, crumbled wafers, raw onion and three different chutneys. Somehow it works and tastes much better than it sounds.
As my craving was specific to vegetables, I ordered some Makhni Paneer (mushrooms in a tomato and saffron sauce) and Vegetable Korma (mixed vegetables in a creamy sauce). The Korma was pitch perfect and not too heavy while the Makhni would have benefitted from more saffron and less tomato paste but it kept me happy nonetheless. A solid naan and steamed rice that was not overcooked completed the meal. Definitely good enough to lure me back and try some of the meat choices and chef’s specials.
The Chef, by the way, is the matriarch of the family. Our server explained they come from Punjab but the food is what their mother would make at home and, indeed, she was in the kitchen making. The orange walls should have tipped me off to a strong female presence. Ever noticed how nicely orange reflects on a woman’s skin at night?
Great India Cafe
(818) 992-6270 | 21926 Ventura Blvd., Woodland Hills, CA 91364