Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Beautiful Sundara: Indian-Inspired Food Hits the Beach Crowd

Adam Lowe and Nick Leibman, two of the new Indian restaurant Sundara's four partners are a little self-conscious about what they do. After all, as Lowe jokes, "What are two white guys doing starting an Indian restaurant?" But, they--and their partners Chris Geremia and Andrea Horning--have done just that.

Chicken tikka masala
Sundara--which means "beautiful" in Sanskrit--is a pop-up restaurant located evenings at the Pt. Loma Beach Cafe on Sunset Cliffs. Opened since late June, the menu is essentially modeled on British curry houses.

"I can't claim a vast knowledge of regional Indian food," says Lowe, the restaurant's chef, who is trained as an engineer but also has his MBA from USD. "Our menu is very specific and meshes with curry houses found in Britain, New Zealand, and Australia."

Lowe got the idea to open an Indian restaurant several years ago after moving to Ocean Beach. "I had fallen in love with Indian food and couldn't believe there were no Indian restaurants here. I mean this is a hippie, vegetarian community."

Realizing he had no desire for a traditional 9 to 5 gig, he had been searching around for entrepreneurial ideas. When he made the connection with Indian food, he felt he had his calling--but he'd never worked in a restaurant. So, he got a job as a runner at Bombay to learn the business.

"The restaurant had its issues, but it was a great experience. I learned about operations and learned about what's popular on Indian menus." He also spent time working at Pizza Nova, a place he calls "a shining example of how restaurants should be run--smooth, orderly, and clean." And, he worked for Hanis Cavin at Kensington Grill. Cavin, he says, has been hugely supportive of the restaurant idea, even walking him through Pt. Loma Beach Cafe and advising him, "Dude, go for it."

All the while Lowe was working at the restaurants, he says in his off time he was making curries in his tiny apartment kitchen. "My main source for recipes and inspiration was Madjur Jaffrey, he acknowledges. "But I used a lot of cookbooks and adapted recipes. At the end of the day, it's just trial, trial, and trial--redoing, taking bits and pieces from different recipes until you get it right."

He also studied restaurant menus online, learning what the common items were so he could focus his menu. Eventually, he and his partners pulled together the money needed to launch the business, which opened June 27.

Tikka Masala, not surprisingly, is the most popular item on the menu. But while the menu is small, Sundara offers just enough variety for diners to feel they have choices--without being overwhelmed.

There are three curries. The Tikka Masala is a traditional tomato-based curry infused with lemon, ginger, and other herbs and spices. The Vindaloo is a richly spiced red chili and garlic stew.

Chicken vindaloo with sesame naan
And the Saag is a luscious spinach and onion curry, served with paneer, cubes of firm Indian cow's milk cheese. All of the curries have the options of being made with either mixed vegetables, chicken, or paneer.

Saag with chunks of paneer
Sundara also offers two vegetarian curries--Channa Masala, a spiced garbanzo bean stew, and the lentil-based Dal Makhani. And, of course, there is Tandoori chicken, three skinless chicken legs per order that have been marinated for 24 hours in lemon, herbs, and yogurt, then roasted in their clay tandoori oven. Yes, they have one.

You can also enjoy housemade naan--either plain or with garlic and cilantro or sesame. And there are a few appetizers--papadum, crisp toasted lentil crackers, a tart raita with yogurt, cucumber, and spices; and both tamarind and mint chutney (see recipe below).

Crispy papadum with raita and chutneys
The prices are very reasonable. The highest priced menu items are the curries, which top out at $8.50. With these you get a serving of basmati rice.

Of course, what it comes down to are the flavors. This is pure Indian comfort food. Lowe and Horning, who cooks with him, create rich, spicy dishes that have powerful flavor profiles. Most satisfying is that the dishes with chicken--using white meat--are wonderfully tender, thanks to a 24-hour marinade in yogurt that tenderizes the flesh. What also helps is that each dish is plated--even while using solid take-out containers--with visual appeal. Lowe acknowledges that he had given this a lot of thought.

"Most stews look horrible on a plate. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to make a good presentation and came up with spreading the basmati rice on both sides of the container and settling the curry in between, then adding simple garnishes to the rice."

It works. In fact, the whole operation works. Most of the food is prepped off-site in a rented kitchen space, then brought over nightly and made to order at the restaurant. The clay oven is outside in the back and it's a kick to watch the naan baked in less than a minute and pulled out hot and steaming.

Naan cooking in the clay oven
Pulling the garlic mint naan from the clay oven
Liebman runs the front of the house as well as the business end and Jeremiah, says Lowe, is the glue that holds the operation together, whether it's helping with prep or anything else that needs to get down. The result is a well-run restaurant that attends to customer needs and serves delicious, Indian-inspired food.

Here's Lowe's recipe for his spicy mint chutney.

Spicy Mint Chutney
from Sundara
(printable recipe)

Makes about 24 ounces

1 bunch mint, leaves only
2 bunches cilantro, leaves and stems
3/4 cup chopped onion
1/2 cup fresh squeezed lemon juice
2 fresh serrano chilies
2 tablespoons fresh ginger
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon toasted and ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
3/4 cup yogurt

Combine all ingredients in a food processor and blend until you get the desired consistency.

Tip: It works best to add the yogurt last, as the weight on top of the leaves makes for easier blending. These quantities fill a large processor bowl, so you may want to cut the recipe in half.

Sundara is located at 1424 Sunset Cliffs Blvd. It's open every evening but Tuesday from 5 to 10 p.m. Eat in, take-out, and delivery available.

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