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Delicious Spree LA to Z: Annapurna Cuisine

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LAist is going on a delicious spree around LA from A to Z. Today, we finish up last week's A: All About Indian, with a trip to Annapurna, Indian Vegetarian Cuisine.

Like most Indian restaurants, Annapurna has a lunch buffet. Is it odd that buffets are so common in Indian restaurants? No, it’s very understandable, actually. Indian isn’t a a cook-to-order cuisine like burgers, sushi, or Chinese. Curries simmer for hours, improving in flavor as they stew down, and meats aren’t just flash- or stir-fried – they cook for a long time time in the tandoori oven. So these things are started in large batches early in the day, so setting out reasonable quantities in a buffet serving dish is logical. Annapurna’s buffet is long, but the serving pans are small, so I know the food hasn’t been sitting there collecting germs from diner all day. The refreshed the buffet at least four or five times during our meal there.

The regular menu looks long, but is deceptively so because each whole section is essentially one thing, but served with different accessories. All the appetizers are different combinations of deep-fried vegetables and either chickpea or lentil flour. Dosas are thin crepes made with rice and lentil flour, and though there are almost 20 listed under the dosa section, they are all just adorned wtih different accessories like spread with butter, or chutney, or stuffed with cheese. Uthappams are a thicker pancake, with similar ingredients in the batter, but a heavier portion of rice flour. They are similar to a pizza, as they can be topped with peas, onions, chilis, and cheese. There are rices mixed with different things, each one listed separately, like lemon rice, tamarind rice, and tomato rice.

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It took a long time for us to go through the buffet because we got caught behind a Woody Allen looking guy, but flashier, who was pulling a complete buffet-style When Harry Met Sally. Annapurna on a weekday has quite a few of te Sony crowd, it seems. Not only did he ask what every single item was even though they were very clearly identified on Post-it notes on the sneeze-guard, he also had to know how it was cooked and if there was a flour or rice in it. Hm, who's on the South Beach diet?

We made it through the buffet with a taste of everything, except the desserts. Those would have to be reserved for a second trip, since we didn't want to walk back to the table double fisting. The server had left us a a plate with paper-thin dosas, which we thought would be a rather bland carbohydrate filler like most breads are, but they were slightly salted and a tad tangy. Closer to the edges they were thinner, crisper and tender-er, and toward the center, just ever so slightly chewy. We liked them almost more than naan. Almost.

The mildest looking thing was the dal, lentils. They were mild in terms of heat, but nicely spiced with large seeds....coriander? We're not sure whether the bright yellow came from the dal themselves, or if it's the addition of yellow spices (cumin). The dal was a good way to ease into the tv dinner lunch plate.

The tv dinner plate is quite fitting actually, because the restaurant is almost an Indian entertainment center. Along the top of the walls all the way around the dining room, there is a border made to look like a filmstrip with famous Indian actors. There are also two flat screen tvs, though we weren't sure if they were showing a musical-made-to-film (like Westside Story) or a music video of Indian singers (like mtv). The tv directly in front of us has a lot of Indian people singing and dancing, sometimes very traditional moves, and sometimes they look like the Back Street Boys.

We're also sitting in one of the booths against the side wall. The booths are outfitted with computer screens and keyboards. Annapurna must moonlight as an Indian cybercafe.

The next thing looks like very yellow sauerkraut, but tastes like, cabbage poriyal. And that's what it is! The cabbage poriyal was fairly mild as well, but highly seasoned, as the yellow must have come from turmeric or cumin.

There were two soups at the buffet that we ladled into tiny metal bowls that look like my one cup measuring cup for baking. Both were similar to each other in color on the surface, but further investigation with a spoon that was disproportionate to the bowl revealed totally different things inside. The rasam is a spicy (but not that spicy) and sour (but not that sour) tomato soup. It tasted like tomato soup with a few added spices. The sambar, which also had a tomato base, was more interesting. Lentils that were either cooked down or ground first before adding made the consistency a little thicker.

Two vegetable curries were next. One, simply called vegetable curry, had cauliflower, green beans, and a few other vegetables that were stewed to unidentifieable but deliciously soft. It was good, but we had tasted many curries like this before. The kadai bindi, with the tiny floral shapes of the okra, deserved more attention. Like tandoor refers to the oven in which things are cooked, kadai refers to a special type of pot or pan in which the bindi, okra, or any other type of vegetables are cooked.

Up until this point, everything had been deliciously spiced, but not spicy. The next thing looked like Korean kimchee. Maybe this one would make us sweat. It was completely covered in what looked like red chili pepper powder. Chew. Wait. Chew. Wait. And there it was. Spicy! Granted, it didn't throw flames from our ears, but it was pretty spicy. It looked like a pickled cucumber, though if it were a cucumber, then it must have been some foreign Indian strain that had a skin as tough as wood. Later, we found out it was a mango pickle; the hard piece must have been the skin.

On the second trip through the buffet, we picked up what was labelled as "appetizer basket" that was almost empty on the first trip. Apparently, deep fried things, in any country, are popular, but this go round, they had just been refreshed on the buffet. Aloo bonda looks like a potato croquette that had been dipped in Tang powder. The crumb coating made of lentil flour on the outside was thin and crisp, and the inside was a soft, spicy potato and onion filling.

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The other fried things were all in the same orange-colored family as the aloo bonda, but coated with a batter rather than a crumb. The vada was just lentil flour shaped like a doughnut hole. Pretty uninteresting, but okay with a massive dip in some raita. Onion pakoda is made with chick peas, and looked a little over fried, as it was darker than the others. It tasted over fried too, a little bit tougher. The best one was the mirch bhaji, a jalapeno that had been coated fairly thickly with the spiced chickpea flour. The batter was a little too thick, so we peeled half of it off so that we could actually taste the jalapeno. Much better that way. And alternating with bites of the mango pickle, the heat made us happy.

We didn't do dessert. The buffet table had fresh fruit that didn't look all that appetizing - watermelon slices that were too pale. There was also a large dish of what looked like yogurt with fruit in it, but though everything was vegetables, we had eaten a lot. Instead, we tasted the gajar halwa, grated carrots cooked with milk and butter, and sugar. Other than the fact that it was sweet, it wasn't anything special. In fact, it reminded us too much of that disgusting carrot raisin salad they used to make us eat in our elementary school cafeteria. *gag*

After finishing up, we had to sit there to digest. It was easy, since the Indian Back Street Boys were actually pretty entertaining. The final check was ridiculously low. We had gorged ourselves for only $6.95 per person. It almost felt like we were cheating Annapurna in some way. We'll definitely be back, since the server told us that the buffet changes every day. They also have a location in Orange County, as well as two in Artesia. If Annapurna is a fairly good representation of Pioneer Boulevard, then LAist only has to go as far as Culver City!

Annapurna Cuisine
10200 Venice Boulevard (at Motor)
Culver City, CA 90232
(310) 204-5500