South Indian street food gets an exciting contemporary makeover at Tumbi

By Richard Foss

Prawns cooked in coconut milk and mustard seed come with onion-tomato masala, curry leaves, South Asian pickles, basmati rice, dal and papadum

If you look over the bar in the new Santa Monica restaurant called Tumbi, you’ll see a tumbi. Two of them, in fact. You may not notice them at first or know what they are, because these one-stringed musical instruments are small, slender and don’t resemble anything in a traditional American or European band. Plucking the string produces a ringing, high-pitched note that is integral to the Punjabi pop music called bhangra that’s made for dance floors and Bollywood production numbers.

Don’t expect to hear a tumbi, either — at least I didn’t during a leisurely dinner with an old friend. The music was cool, slightly subdued and Western, which fits a diverse clientele that reflects the crowds near Santa Monica Pier.

Tumbi’s menu is relatively compact compared to most Indian restaurants, and while the focus is on South Indian food there are a few Northern favorites. South Indian cuisine is shaped by both the tropical ecology and the fact that most people there are Hindus and Sikhs, who eat much less meat than their Muslim neighbors. That’s what attracted me to Tumbi in the first place, because I was dining with someone who is mostly vegetarian but was tired of the usual offerings. There are meat items available here, but also plenty to delight those who never touch the stuff.

Since we hadn’t been to Tumbi before and didn’t know the size of the portions, we decided to order a few starters and items from their “street food” menu and repeat as necessary until we were full. We started with a kind of vegetarian sandwich called vada pav, a garbanzo-flour dumpling item called dahi balla, and malai naan bread.

Vada pav is a popular street snack around Mumbai, a potato fritter sandwich topped with a little raw onion and a dab of tangy mild chutney. A fried potato sandwich may not sound all that alluring, but when made well these are delightful. The potato cake is spiced with turmeric, curry leaves, asafoetida and other spices, and enhanced by the chutney’s sweet, sour and spicy flavors.

The slider-sized sandwich came with a small pile of iddly fries — steamed rice and lentil cakes cut into French fry shapes and then deep-fried. They’re remarkably like the fried polenta popular in Italian restaurants — extremely crisp, with a wholesome grain flavor. If these were offered on their own, I’d happily munch on a pile of them.

Chef Imran Ali Mookhi makes Indian food look irresistible

The dahi balla was reminiscent of Middle Eastern food because it shared some ingredients and techniques. The balls of fried spiced garbanzo bean flour had a lot in common with falafel. Those are often topped with yogurt sauce, but these garbanzo balls had a distinctly different seasoning and the yogurt was infused with mustard, sugar cane and hot chili flakes. But it’s safe to say that if you like one, you’ll enjoy the other.

The combination of sweetness and spiciness in the yogurt made us want to scoop up every bit, and the malai naan was perfect for that. Malai is pretty much the same thing that fans of English teas call clotted cream, and I’m used to finding it in Indian desserts. Mixing sweet, high-butterfat cream with dough makes for incredibly light, flaky bread. Now that I know this exists, I’ll be sure to order it whenever I can.

We decided to continue with a mushroom curry dosa, one of several main items that will suit vegetarians. I admit experiencing some degree of food envy as a platter of Kashmiri lamb went by for another table, but I was very happy with the dosa — though it wasn’t what I had expected.

Dosas are a type of crisp crepe, and they often arrive as an immense tube of crisp batter with a little filling in the middle. That’s not only an impressive presentation, but a practical one, since the top stays crunchy for much longer. Here the dosa arrived as a neat folded triangle with a lump of stuffing in the middle, looking a giant Chinese wonton. The crepe softened a bit faster than it would have in the traditional configuration, though it was also somewhat neater to eat.

Dosa batter is fermented both for lightness and to get a pleasing flavor slightly like sourdough, and this one was very good. The mushrooms in mild curry had been cooked to contemporary style, which is to say there was a variety of them and they were still a bit al dente rather than being stewed to near mush. At $17 it was easily the most expensive dosa I’ve ever eaten, but I expect some of that went into finding ingredients of superb quality.

The starters weren’t massive and dosas are usually built to serve one person, but we surprised ourselves after deciding this had been a lovely light dinner and, though we were weren’t stuffed, we’d eaten just the right amount to satisfy. And so we sat and talked over her water and my glass of Brander Sauvignon Blanc, a wine that goes well with this cuisine.

This light dinner for two ran $60, and although that’s a bit high even near the pier, we both plan to return. This is a kitchen with interesting ideas and flawless execution that left me wanting to explore more of its menu.

Tumbi 115 Santa Monica Blvd., Santa Monica (310) 829-7200