Variations on classic cocktails are a popular theme for many a bar program. But at Chef Akasha Richmond’s new Culver City Indian restaurant, Sāmbār, the cocktails by lead bartender Clare Ward are so beyond plug-and-play, where you sub different ingredients but use the same recipe specs, that it’s almost difficult to tell which is the Negroni-inspired one or Margarita-like cocktail. Think: perfumed, exotic, and spicy with ingredients like tamarind-cacao infused rum, vindaloo shrub, and jaggery.
“I figure we’re going to get adventurous eaters here and I didn’t want to do a normal cocktail menu. I wanted to put things on there that would throw people for a loop,” says Ward. “We’re not just going to do a Manhattan, we’re going to do something different and you’re going to like it.”
Her menu is broken up into three categories of “Spice Trade Cocktails,” “Punches,” and “Inspired Classics,” but it’s the last one that’s for the adventurous types who don’t want to stray too far from the familiar.
Her Blood Moon Over Bengal cocktail is a very loose interpretation of the Mai Tai, made with Indian spices as well as bourbon instead of rum. But it’s a lighter, quaffable “tropical” drink.
For those seeking a dirty Martini, there’s the Vegetable Walla. Since Culver City has no shortage of bars and restaurants featuring vodka cocktails, Ward wanted to create a drink you can’t find anywhere else. “So I did a play on a Dirty Martini. It’s got the Hophead Vodka which is a vodka made with hops.” The result is something polarizing, a vegetal Martini, and may appeal more to the adventurous drinker rather than the average vodka imbiber. “I figured, they come here and I want to give them a different experience,” she says.
The Spice Trade Cocktails, on the other hand, are inspired by Indian libations. “I came up with the idea of doing drinks they have in India, but we needed to have more of an accessible menu, drinks people know,” she says. “I wanted to make it adventurous but not scary.”
Since most Indian drinks are meant to cool down, increase appetite, or aid in digestion, they are sweet, salty, and savory. Characteristics that don’t always translate into cocktails, but Ward makes it happen. The Sacred Cow, a play on the lassi, is a very light gin and yogurt cocktail that’s the perfect accompaniment for spicy dishes. And kanji, a fermented drink enjoyed during the Holi Festival, is translated into a mouth-watering rye cocktail, the Maharaja, featuring carrot syrup and a beet shrub.
Ward, who also runs the bar program for Richmond’s other Culver City restaurant, Akasha, down the street, created the Sāmbār program by not only reading the stacks of books that Richmond gave her but frequenting the authentic Indian grocery stores in the area. “The funny thing about Culver City is that there’s actually a big Indian population,” she says. “There are two great Indian stores so you can go in and talk to them. A little bit of field work and a little bit of research. It’s been pretty fun.”
And, yes, there is a curry-inspired cocktail, the Under the Mango Tree with vindaloo. It has a bit of spice thanks to that vindaloo shrub and chile salt rub but it won’t fight with the food.
Sambar, 9531 Culver Blvd., Culver City, 310-558-8800