I heard about the chicken wings at Sambar before anything else. Mississippi masala chicken wings, they’re called, which perhaps gives you an idea of the style of cooking going on here—casual, experimental and catered more towards the residents of its Culver City neighborhood than LA’s Indian population. The restaurant comes from chef and owner Akasha Richmond (Akasha), a self-taught chef who was inspired to open Sambar after traveling through India. You won’t find dishes that light your mouth on fire here, but that isn’t really the point. Call it beginner’s Indian, call it new wave masala—Sambar is like a gateway restaurant for those who aren't quite sure yet if they like Indian food.
There are plenty of fried appetizers to start with, some better than others. I found the samosas, which come two to an order, lacking in some necessary spice, but the cauliflower and onion pakoras are a great alternative. Covered in chickpea batter and wrapped in newspaper, the dish arrives with a vibrant tamarind-date chutney that I couldn’t help scooping up with a spoon long after the pakoras were gone. Starters that aren’t fried include a range of salads and cheeses, like the kachumber—cucumber and heirloom tomatoes tossed with mint, cilantro, red onion, chaat masala and lemon. It’s a bright, crisp dish that acted as a palate cleanser to offset some of the heavier plates on our table, including the Kerala seafood curry. This was the hit of spice I had been waiting for: mustard seeds and curry leaves and ginger swimming in a coconut broth full of salmon, squid, mussels and other sea creatures. You should order it with basmati rice—no, the rice does not come included, which is where the bill at Sambar starts to rack up; plates are small and not cheap.
And what about those chicken wings, the ones that many have lauded as some of the best in the city? Our basket was a mix—juicy, tender, golden wings were the norm, but a few of the wings were dry and didn’t quite hit the mark. Perhaps it was an off night? Regardless, the combination of a traditional comfort food and exotic spices will have even the pickiest of eaters venturing out of their comfort zone, not to mention falling in love with the summer fruit chutney that comes on the size. It’s a little Southern, a little Eastern, and with gluten-free and dairy-free dishes spotted throughout the menu, a whole lot of Californian.
What to Eat: The Mississippi masala chicken wings ($12). The Kerala seafood curry ($18)—with basmati rice ($5). The kachumber ($7). The cauliflower and onion pakoras ($6).
What to Drink: “I cannot believe this cocktail list,” I said to my friend shortly after sitting down. Not only is it massive—there are close to 20 different cocktails, as well as beer, wine and non-alcoholic drinks—but the tipples use ingredients like yogurt and apricot liqueur, a muddled Indian herb bouquet and turmeric-infused gin; one section, labeled Spice Trade Cocktails, makes for an especially mesmerizing read. The Darjeeling Express ($12) is like a cold version of a hot toddy, made with Darjeeling tea-infused white whiskey, lemon and a spiced honey reduction. It sounds like something you might have to soothe a sore throat, but I’d encourage you to try it even when you’re completely healthy. For a non-alcoholic drink, there’s a refreshing turmeric and ginger lemonade ($4), and I finished the meal with Sambar’s house brewed chai ($4), a sweet and comforting cup made with cashew milk and palm sugar.
Where to Sit: Sambar’s three main rooms all flow into each other, starting with a narrow outdoor patio by the front entrance that runs alongside an indoor dining area, accentuated by a large purple, red and orange chandelier. A second, larger outdoor patio is closest to the street, and a beautiful spot to have dinner at night when the space lights up.