Akasha succeeds with its organic menu, but the results aren’t always at one with the concept

At first glance Akasha is like many other L.A. restaurants. The air ducts are exposed, the floor is concrete, the music is loud, the waitstaff wear black shirts. We’re all adept at picking up atmospheric signals, which the bill of fare tends to confirm. At the new Culver City spot, matters are different. The offerings are quite the opposite of what the loud music and muddled cocktails telegraph. Reading some of the descriptions on the menu is like being reminded of old friends you’ve been out of touch with for too long. Instead of the ubiquitous sliders, there are lentil-pumpkin-seed burgers; instead of wasabi dollops, bowls of mung beans and rice are served. Akasha is a sceney, hip spot—what in L.A. shorthand might be called a “black shirt” restaurant, but this one has its feet firmly planted in a pair of Birkenstocks.

Akasha Richmond, the restaurant’s owner, has been cooking in Los Angeles since she worked at the Golden Temple, a vegetarian hangout at Fairfax and 3rd, in the early ’80s. At the time she was a serious practitioner of kundalini yoga, rising at dawn to meditate, changing her name, traveling to India. Eventually she channeled her interests into a thriving vegetarian catering career, working for clients like Billy Bob Thornton, Pierce Brosnan, and Barbra Streisand as well as overseeing events at the Sundance Film Festival.

These days she’s gone beyond a strictly vegetarian repertoire. The broad menu at Akasha offers meat and popular dishes like mac and cheese, but the tenets of organic, well sourced, and local—the trifecta of conscience cuisine—serve as a launching point for an entire ecological vision. Here “green” principles permeate the entire operation. The waitstaff may wear black shirts, but they also don Levi’s Eco jeans made of organic cotton; the pasta may be fashioned from spelt flour, but the to-go cutlery is molded from a biodegradable material derived from wheat. I don’t know of any other L.A. restaurant that could make Al Gore more proud.

In an age when people fixate on flavonoids and like to hold forth on the morality of their food, it is somewhat reassuring to happen upon the work of a chef who was onto this philosophy before it was a trend. Richmond came out of ashrams and has been eating mung beans for decades. As she goes on goodwill tours of the dining room (in her hemp apron), introducing herself to customers or taking a sip of the tea she holds in her hand, she appears genuinely relaxed. Richmond has a low-key demeanor, as if she is not much taken in by status. She seems vague and distracted in the way that spiritual people sometimes can.

That means trouble. A certain amount of angst is necessary to run a successful restaurant, and there’s a distinct absence of it here. The hostess might be chatting to a dog walker outside and disinclined to rush in for customers, the busboy doesn’t always clear plates before the second course arrives, and the waiter’s idea of refolding the napkin of a guest who has momentarily left the table is to drape it over the back of a chair.

The food can also suffer from a lack of technical precision, keeping ingredients from forming a whole. For all its exoticness, the south Indian-style Loch Duart salmon brings to mind a preparation flung together behind the scenes of a badly catered affair. The tepid cauliflower and beans served alongside the fish seem random, and the banana leaf it sits on appears to be nothing more than a gratuitous touch. But by itself as a side dish, that cauliflower—caramelized and oven roasted—possesses great focus. At its best, Richmond’s style has the courage of real simplicity. When her dishes work, whether it’s a bowl of quinoa and edamame or hemp-seed-crusted tofu salad, they radiate an earthy integrity.

Akasha occupies a historic brick building in a murderers’ row of talent in downtown Culver City. It’s just steps from Fraîche, Ford’s Filling Station, and Tender Greens. Culver Boulevard’s wide sidewalk tapers in front of the restaurant, giving a constricted feel to the tables outside. But the high-ceilinged front room that houses the bakery is a neighborhood meeting spot. On weekday mornings people amble in from a nearby yoga studio toting mats, and on weekends couples in baseball caps and pushing expensive Scandinavian strollers enjoy lavender shortcake and fair-trade lattes. The main dining room is a delightful scrum, especially in the evening, when the Calder-esque lighting fixtures cast a soft glow and the bar is crowded with people downing all manner of organic drinks. (The Shrek-green Akasha is made of kiwifruit vodka and organic cucumber juice.)

Richmond combines several of the most potentially lethal approaches to cooking: healthfulness, Indian food prepared by non-Indians, and vegetarian versions of classic carnivore fare. The thought of such a grouping can fill you with a dread of leaden, sanctimonious dishes whose morality outweighs their artistry. It’s amazing, then, that only the lentil-pumpkin-seed burger with rice-pimento cheese on a wheat roll lands with a thud. In fact, except for the salmon, her Indian inflections are particularly skillful. Those Punjabi mung beans, served with rapini and brussels sprouts, are a joy, inhabiting that moist middle ground between soupy and stewy, the kind of dish that leaves you saying to yourself, This is just what my body needed.

Among the appetizers, the cannellini bean hummus has a wonderful Mediterranean sensibility. Creamy, served with the lovely peaks that fresh hummus forms, a mess of olives, and a pool of good olive oil at the center, it invites dipping with the accompanying warm flatbread. Fisherman’s Daughter Masala Shrimp also has a becoming simplicity, the skewered shrimp charred, the sauces a blend of fiery and cool. But just when you think you’re onto something, along comes a salad of turmeric-seared pears with arugula, goat cheese, and pomegranate vinaigrette that is so haphazardly rendered, it evinces little sense of what a salad might be.

With the main courses, I’m tempted to say that the higher the ingredient is on the food chain, the greater the chances are of its failing. The steak is an indeterminate cut, strangely chewy and seared without conviction. The Asian-style braised short ribs, however, are intensely satisfying. Richmond doesn’t get all chefy with a reduced sauce; she serves the tender meat in its broth with roasted heirloom carrots atop a mound of potato and parsnip puree.

For the most part, the kitchen keeps the food light—and I mean that without any spa connotations. The spelt spaghetti is a subtle mix in which a hint of lemon peel sharpens the flavors of browned garlic cloves and toasted pine nuts. Even something as inherently bland as a turkey burger—here spiked with olives, jalapeños, and red peppers—has the kick and complexity of a classic.

The desserts of Verité Mazzola have a polished finish. The crème brûlée, silky smooth and deeply caramelized, can compete with any in town. I suppose the hemp gelato signifies some kind of exploit, but the compote of market fruit with frozen yogurt is purer. The dessert to order, though, is the pastry of roasted Braeburn apples with soy-vanilla bean gelato. Its crust has the sandy texture of a crumble, and yet it has been shaped to cup the apples and their juices. The dish displays a deft wholesomeness that represents the restaurant at its best; that it is wheat- and dairy-free is secondary, if not completely beside the point.

Akasha achieves many things. By offering a contemporary interpretation of what many would call a “granola ethos,” it requires one to engage with a host of clichés. Yet the restaurant manages to do so without ever being preachy, and that’s a feat. It is neither all black shirt nor all hair shirt. The clubby setting, devoid of the self-righteous abstemiousness such places are capable of, demonstrates the extent to which this kind of food can evolve, and one can only hope that its ecological seriousness will inspire other restaurants to follow its lead. But Akasha’s idealism and clear vision shouldn’t constitute some kind of cover. The uneven nature of both its food and its service proves that it has plenty to learn from restaurants that don’t have the benefit of a high concept, that are judged every day on attentiveness, speed, consistency, and professional snap.

Photograph by Jessica Boone