Order a thali to experience the rich variety of Indian cuisine
By Richard Foss (Richard@RichardFoss.com)
There are few dining experiences quite so delightful as those when a small group orders whatever looks most interesting and puts everything in the middle of the table for all to share. This is common in Southeast Asian restaurants and tapas places, not so much just about everywhere else —unless it’s my family, from whom servers are used to orders that include a bowl of soup and several spoons. We treat all food as sharing experiences, and revel in variety and community.
The multiplicity of flavors isn’t usually as great when it’s just two of us going out together, save when we take advantage of the culinary traditions of one of the world’s great cultures. In India there is an old tradition called thali, after the stamped metal plates on which these meals are served. It’s the South Asian equivalent of the Japanese bento box, a meal of balanced flavors that offers variety even to a solo diner.
My brother and I had a hankering for Indian food and decided to stop in at New India’s Oven, an established Marina del Rey restaurant that changed hands a few months ago. The restaurant’s location in the middle of a shopping center isn’t particularly high-profile. Dark windows make it look closed even when it’s open, but the interior is tastefully decorated with Indian art.
Though we knew we were likely to order the thali, we scanned the rest of the menu: an array of Punjab-style favorites such as tandoori meats, vegetable curries and breads. We noticed fish pakoras, a must-have item for both of us, and ordered that along with one “non-vegetarian” and one tandoori thali. (Seafood and vegetarian thalis are also offered, but we were both in a carnivorous mood that day.)
The fish pakoras arrived fairly quickly: five good-sized bites in a crisp batter with mild, fragrant spicing. Since we weren’t regulars here, we had ordered everything medium, and as is often the case that erred on the side of mildness. There was only a slight difference between this batter and what might be found from a particularly good fish-and-chip shop — the technique was excellent — but the exuberance of South Asian food was muted. The mint chutney that was at the table was similarly mild, so we requested hot sauce and they delivered a zippy, vinegary sauce that raised the temperature nicely. We enjoyed the fish while sipping a Sauvignon Blanc that handled the spice and seafood flavors nicely.
Our thalis arrived about 15 minutes after they were ordered, the traditional tin trays loaded with food. As tasty as our appetizer was, it wasn’t essential. The tandoori dinner had shish kebab, chicken tikka, tandoori chicken, lamb kebab and spinach paneer, along with naan bread, rice and dessert. The non-vegetarian also had tandoori chicken, along with lamb curry, vegetable korma, lentils, naan and rice. The tandoori items had a fine, smoky flavor and delicate spice, but the kebabs had spent a bit too long in the oven and had dried out. This wasn’t a problem with the tandoori chicken, a leg and thigh that are naturally moist and came out delicious.
One of the advantages of ordering a combination plate in an Indian restaurant as opposed to restaurants of many other cuisines is that curries are slow-cooked stews that get better as they simmer. Compare this with cuisines based on stir-frying, in which a combo would involve making small portions from scratch or using items that are past their prime, and the advantage is obvious.
The curries showed the diversity of Indian flavors, the korma in yoghurt sauce was creamy and smooth, the spinach paneer rich in vegetable flavors, and the tomato-based lamb curry full of vegetable sweetness and spice overtones. Punjab-style Indian food is the most familiar style in America, and this was a greatest hits list of dishes. My only quibble, besides the slight dryness of the kebabs, was that we weren’t offered a chance to have different bread. Even if there was a slight upcharge, we’d have liked garlic naan or one of the stuffed parathas as an option.
Two desserts were offered — kheer, an Indian rice pudding, or gulab jamun, cheese balls in sweet syrup. We had ordered one of each but both received the rice pudding. I decided this was probably for the best, however, as I usually find gulab jamun too sweet.
Our thalis were $17 and $19 — quite reasonable for full and varied dinners, though our wines and the fish pakoras ran the bill over $60. On future visits I’m likely to bring friends and explore the menu further. If I’m alone, or with just one other person, we might order thalis again and tell them to kick up the heat.
New India’s Oven open daily at 11:30 a.m. and closes at 10 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays, at 10:30 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays and at 9 p.m. Sundays. Free parking, plenty of vegetarian/vegan options, wine and beer served.
New India’s Oven 13444 Maxella Ave., Marina del Rey (310) 306-1500 newindiasovenca.com