“I had this idea a few years ago, but I get ideas all the time, so we kind of shelved it. But, I kept coming back to it,” says Akasha Richmond about her new restaurant Sambar.
Her second spot in Culver City—her first, Akasha, is just a block away—Sambar had its soft launch last week and officially opens today. Richmond’s focus this time is Indian cuisine (the restaurant takes its name from the first Indian dish that the chef ever tried), and as with Akasha, the menu is farmers’ market-driven and based on fresh, seasonal ingredients (she’s well aware of the ubiquity of all those buzz words, by the way).
Also like at Akasha, she’s aiming to satisfy a wide range of palates from those like Richmond’s own that have been developed through extensive Indian travels and sampling of the subcontinent’s varied regional cuisines to those of more casual Indian restaurant-goers who dabble in the occasional curry or tandoori platter.
Richmond is doing this by offering a menu of Indian dishes that she’s modernized while aiming to stay true to the flavors that spurred her love for the cuisine in the first place. She’s also sourcing high-quality ingredients (many of which she’s importing from India) and making almost everything in house, including two kinds of paneer but minus papadum, which she laments demands more labor and space—one of the steps requires six hours of sun drying—than she’s able to dedicate.
The paneers, a soft ricotta-like one made from goat milk and another from cow’s milk with a firmer, tofu-like consistency that’s commonly seen in L.A.’s Indian restaurants, will be the centerpiece of a thali (a plate of assorted small-portioned dishes) that will also include Indian pickles and chutneys that she’s been holding onto for Sambar’s opening.
“Last summer, when we signed the lease, I made a huge batch of mango chutney from local mangoes in Palm Springs from Wong Farms, so I saved that for here,” says the chef, who also preserved peach, tomato, and apricot chutneys that she’ll be making good use of in the coming months.
“It’s perfect because we’ve had enough to open, and now that the fruit is in season, we’ll make enough for the whole year,” she continues.
However, not everything can be preserved, of course, and when asked about the challenges of creating an Indian menu that relies on seasonal availability, Richmond admits that there are some.
“I love peas, and they’re just going out right now. I was really bummed, but eggplant is coming in and heirloom tomatoes are coming in, so I’m trying to focus on that,” she says.
Richmond is also heartened by the fact that there’s so much overlap between Californian and Indian produce.
“The great thing is there’s so much that we have here that they have there. You look at India, they have more than what we have, but India in the north, they have apricots, cherries, pomegranates, grapes. I mean they have all that,” she says with palpable enthusiasm. “If you look in the south, there’s bananas, pineapples, coconut.”
These similarities play right into Richmond’s style and its intrinsic California sensibilities, which shine through in her new menu. She enlisted cookbook author and culinary educator Ragavhan Iyer as a consultant while developing dishes that marry her own cooking style with the Indian flavors she has been experimenting with for years.
There’s her take on makki ki roti, a chapati made from corn, which she says is usually heavy. To lighten it up, she’s using organic white corn masa flour and then pressing ginger, cilantro leaves, and chili into it to up the flavor. There’s also her naan-focaccia hybrid, a spongy, yellow-hued bread that she serves along side a very sultry porchetta-style pork shoulder, marinated overnight in a rub of Vindaloo paste and curry leaves then expertly roasted by Sambar’s chef de cuisine Kirk Plummer.
“He’s awesome, and he’s really good with porchetta, which is one of my favorite things in the whole world. He’s better at roasting big, meaty things than I am,” she says.
Richmond’s other modern interpretations include Mississippi Masala Wings, which are brined then dipped in buttermilk and a Indian spice-flavored flour mixture; a couple of burgers (the lamb is topped with tomato chutney, which Richmond calls “Indian ketchup”); and a small dessert menu with a nutmeg and cardamon cookie crumble-topped sundae along with a cookie plate filled with a “new-wave masala” assortment that includes chocolate-dipped Earl Grey shortbread, turmeric poppy seed crisps, and chocolate goji berry cookies sprinkled with Himalayan salt. Soft serve might be coming soon, too.
Richmond will continue to refine the menu in the coming weeks, so expect some changes and additions.
Sambar, 9531 Culver Blvd., Culver City, 310-558-8800