‘Tis The Season for Gift Baskets

Yes, the holidays are definitely upon us.  Looking for a thoughtful gift sure to please everyone on you list? What could be easier than a  Melissa’s Produce gift basket?   Melissa’s Produce supplies the freshest seasonal staples and exotics.  Fruit, vegetables and fine wines can all be creatively arranged in any combination, from single stunning gift baskets to impressive monthly subscriptions. You choose whatever best suits your gift giving needs.

Vegans or vegetarians on your list? The baby vegetable medley is perfect for salads, roasting or soups.

And if you happen to find one of these bad boys in your fruit basket don’t be scared, it’s an  Ecuadorian dragon fruit and they are new to the US market. The uber sweet, soft inner flesh and seeds scooped out with a spoon are sure to tickle the palate and leave a lasting impression no matter which way your friends and family lean food-wise.

Melissa’s colorful gift baskets are perfect for everyone from the health conscious to those who have busy entertaining schedules through the New Year. The seasonal assortments are an impressive display that will always be appreciated as a lighter alternative to the holiday excess bound to occur.

Be sure to check out Melissa’s Produce Gift baskets for a carefree alternative to last minute holiday shopping.

Indian And Californian Blending Well

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Indian Kitchen in West Hollywood seems to us the perfect marriage of Indian and California culture and cuisine. The menu is Northern Indian all the way, but the dishes have been altered to suit a Los Angeles clientele. Beef, an option not usually found on Indian menus, shows up as a protein choice and sauces are lightened with coconut milk replacing 75% of the heavy cream normally found.

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They also embrace vegan and vegetarian options, happily supporting those whose lifestyles require few or no animal products.

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We noticed some unique drinks and ordered the ginger iced and ginger hot tea. Both have a serious ginger bite and come unsweetened. Sugar packets on the table can be added for those prefering a sweet and spicy ginger experience. Iced chai and spiced iced tea are also available for warm Southern California days.

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We like to start with papadum, lentil and garbanzo flour, folded, flat, crisp breads that go well with chutney.

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Mint chutney, spiced with green chili and cilantro is an herb based, savory dipping sauce while the tamarind chutney is a well balanced sweet and sour contrasting encounter. Either can be spooned onto appetizers or salads for enhanced oomph.

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The mixed vegetable pakora appetizer starts with freshly shredded vegetables and dips them into a garbanzo batter laden with spices before frying them up. They remind us of the Jewish flavors of both falafel and potato pancakes, as if they were unified in one dish.

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A chana chat salad takes Indian street food and transforms it into a refreshing starter of garbanzo beans, spiced potato, cucumber, tomato and raw onion, mellowed by yogurt and chutney for a tongue teasing melange of flavors.

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We were informed that the secret to Indian cooking is the fresh whole and ground spices imported from India. Nutmeg, mace, turmeric, curry powder mixes, cumin, coriander and garam masala (a combination of Indian bay leaves, cloves and cardamom) are some of the spices responsible for the flavor profile.

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Most dishes can be ordered with guests choice of chicken, lamb, beef, fish, shrimp or tofu.

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Ginger chicken, presented on a sizzling platter, has a sharp snap of the fragrant root which permeates the tender, white meat poultry in addition to the infusion of smokey flavor from the tandoor oven.

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The chicken and lamb shish kabob are an interesting mix that are beautifully enhanced by the sweet grilled onions abounding on the hot skillet.

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Each biryani we taste is a new adventure and we were particularly taken with Indian Kitchen’s lamb biryani. A dry, non-greasy, yet exceptionally moist, well spiced and saturated bed of rice and peas conceals soft chunks of roasted lamb topped with crunchy fried onions. Each bite is a journey along the spice trail and we were seduced by the savory cinnamon accents.

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Our chicken pasanda was a fragrant green curry, combining pistachio nuts, herbs and a special spice blend that retains a nut crunch and texture in the creamy, tangy, lemon kissed dish.

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A coconut cream, lightened version of chicken korma carries the full savoriness of the rich sauce and is topped with raisins and cashew nuts. We are thankful that it doesn’t weight us down with gobs of heavy cream.

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The classic chicken tikka masala also gets a reinvigoration of coconut cream in place of most of the heavy whipping cream, resulting in a delightful Indian spiced tomato sauce.

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Those looking for healthy alternatives have a lot to choose from including the jalfrezi or zalfraze. This light dish, no matter how you spell it, is a tumble of vegetable chunks and the protein of customers choice resulting in a dry, stir fry, cauliflower, bell pepper, tomato and onion melange.

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We like it hot and if you do too, check out the volcano, one of the chef’s secret recipes. We managed to pry out that it is based in hot red chili powder, crushed red chili flakes and ghost peppers. Our lamb volcano also incorporates a blend of turmeric, curry powder, bay leaf, curry leaves, coriander, paprika, nutmeg and black pepper. We requested ours medium which left a nice tingle trail over the tongue and down the throat.

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The staff at Indian Kitchen are well aware of the dietary restrictions that abound in our fair city and are happy to accommodate guests.

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From the vegetable menu, fresh okra is sautéed along with onions, tomatoes and herbs in the bhendi masala. The chefs definitely know their way around okra and its optimal preparation.

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Tofu makhiani is a tomato based cream curry with roasted garlic and ghee resulting in a buttery, tomato sauce often referred to on menus as butter chicken (when served on chicken not tofu of course).

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And the tofu yellow curry is an onion based sauce tinged with turmeric for a sweet and spicy treat.

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Lunch specials are affordable and available Monday through Fridays.

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And finally don’t forget to check out the dessert menu where we found some of the best rasmalai we have had locally. Milk based patties in a creamy sauce are scented with rose water and this version brings together the soft textures, full boded smoothness and crunch of pistachio in a perfect blending with nothing overpowering the delicate balance.

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For a creative Indian dining experience, with nods to America’s love of beef and California’s desire for stellar health, The Indian Kitchen satisfies everyone in exactly the form that works best for them.

The Indian Kitchen, 8165 Santa Monica Boulevard, West Hollywood, CA 90046
Phone – 323-656-9000           web site – indiankitchenla.com

Southern Indian Enchantment

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Mayura brings the flavor of Southern India, Kerala to be exact, to Culver City.

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Their lunch buffet, lunch and dinner specials are reasonably priced and offer the curious a chance to indulge.

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The extensive buffet lines the western wall of the restaurant and comes with a drink and made to order dosa (rice and lentil flour crepes), on request.

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Our favorite dishes on the buffet were the goat curry and fish curry, both deep, complex, rich sauces concealing well prepared meat and fish.

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Mayura is one of the few places locally where we find appam , light, spongy, rice, lentil and yeast pancakes that absorb the curries served alongside.

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The buffet includes appetizers and soups,

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and of course traditional naan bread.

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South Indian cooking crafts amazing vegetable dishes to appeal to the vegetarian population. We benefit from this dedication in the form of mixed vegetable curries and a savory, dry string bean recipe on the day of our visit.

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An entire buffet island is dedicated to condiments, salads, pickles and raita.

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The condiments and potato curry from the buffet are savory and sometimes spicy dips for the dosa which come in a variety of shapes including the cone dosa below.

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Mayura prides itself on setting out the best dishes from Kerala and providing stellar customer service. They follow the philosophy of Gandhi and have his definition of customer on the wall, assuring a splendid afternoon or evening meal.

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Mayura Restaurant, 10406 Venice Boulevard, Culver City, CA 90232
Phone – 310-559-9644           web site – mayuraLA.com

Diving Deep Into The Vegan Pool

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We strongly recommend finding experts to guide the way when exploring new cuisines. We took our own advice and enlisted the expertise of Zel and Reuben Allen, the masterminds behind Vegetarians in Paradise.

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They eased the way through the menu at the new Vegetarian and Vegan restaurant, Vegetable, in Studio City.

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We were first struck by the official stamp proclaiming all organic produce, with a seasonal and local standard to boot. We jumped right in and were oh so pleasantly surprised by the intensely flavored meal that was delivered one small plate at a time.

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Floored is the best way to describe our reaction to the savory, salty, sweet, spicy mix of flavors and textures incorporated into the butternut squash toast. Roasted garlic and butternut squash “butter” top grilled sourdough. And if that isn’t exciting enough, baby tomato, fried leek, crushed red chili pepper, flake sea salt, fresh oregano and a balsamic reduction sent us into states of ecstasy some of us did not know vegan food could conjure.

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Moving deeper down the rabbit hole, a crisp edged saffron infused savory corn cake turned out to be a beautiful assemblage atop spicy chickpea sweet onion stew and a salty garlic lacinato kale. A kiwi and serrano pepper pico de gallo adds a bit of heat as does the smokey Sriracha aioli. While the drizzling of balsamic reduction incorporates just the right amount of sweet tang to the mix.

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The meaty sautéed baby portobello mushrooms in a balsamic vinegar with sweet onion and chives are beyond addicting and we could make an entire meal of these with a loaf of grainy bread.

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For comfort food, not much beats mac and cheese, which at Vegetable is made with Andean Dream gluten-free quinoa pasta shells, savory garlic cashew cheese sauce, baby tomatoes, and a garlic walnut crumble topping.  All we know is that it’s rich, creamy and satisfying. No cheese?  Really?

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We finished off with a crisp edged, gluten free blondie loaded with shredded coconut and a vegan peanut butter ice cream that simply must be tried to be believed. No dairy?  Tasted like the real deal to us.

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Thank you Zel and Reuben for the palate and mind-blowing introduction to Vegetable and the delights of a vegan diet. We’re on board with team vegan and are excited to make vegan and vegetarian cuisine a part of our health diet.

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Vegetable, 3711 Cahuenga Blvd, Studio City, CA 91604
Phone – 818-754-1149         web site – vegetablela.com

Inspired Indian Goods Emporium And Restaurant

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We were blown away by the overflowing imported goods available at Bhanu Indian Cuisine & Grocery.  Whoever does the buying at this store certainly knows their way around world renowned snacks, sweets and ingredients.

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Half the shop is dedicated to an Indian restaurant serving up mighty tasty vegetarian as well as omnivore centric Indian food.

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A periodic table on the back of the menu explains the chemistry of chili, a subject of endless fascination to us and an indication that the meal, ordered at a spice level 7, was going to be a seriously spicy dinner.

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The market is a joy to shop with narrow aisles loaded with exotic brands of Indian and South East Asian essentials.

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Snacks for making chat (Indian street or fast food) and ghee for cooking abound.

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Beauty products captured our interest as we contemplate the beauty of Indian women’s flowing dark hair.

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In the restaurant the large menu covers Indian snacks, street food, vegetarian, fish, chicken and meat based dishes.

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We love starting with a relaxing spice and milk filled chai.

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Our vegetarian thali plate came with light and fluffy basmati rice, chana masala, a refreshingly light eggplant curry, a creamy well spiced spinach with paneer, tart yogurt and we sprung for the extra .50 cents to have garlic added to our naan, for a crisp-edged, soft-centered, garlic infused delight of a bread.

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The spicy lamb korma was loaded with chunks of exceptionally tender lamb in a creamy, fruity, nut scented sauce that simply melted on the tongue.

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For an enthralling  experience delving into the markets, restaurants and cuisine of India, a stop by Bhanu Indian Grocery & Cuisine is a must try.

Bhanu Indian Grocery & Cuisine, 7246 Rosemead Boulevard, San Gabriel, CA 91775     Phone – 626-291-2101         web site – mybhanu.com

Vegan and Vegetarian “Meats” Galore

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In our search for healthful living and eating we are exploring the options and found quite the unique market in Vege USA.  The cafe that used to provide meals closed down a year ago, but sales of frozen and dry vegan and vegetarian products are still going strong at this animal free alternative shop.

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Signage on the wall specifies what is vegan or vegetarian, and which products contain eggs or milk. We greatly appreciate clear labeling so customers can be assured that their purchases conform to whatever lifestyle choices they have made.

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Products are from Taiwan and there is a definitely Asian feel to what is offered.

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Seafood soy product are heavily represented and of course vegetables are also a part of the mix.

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The frozen food section carries “meats” that only need to be heated and added to your favorite dishes.

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Large frozen packages make pulling dinner together a snap.

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There is also a dry goods section hosting such exotic offerings as vegetarian shark fin,

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and the famous XO sauce found on many Asian menus.

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For the holidays, vegan turkeys and ham are on offer for those wanting to keep tradition in appearance, if not in actual meats.

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For those looking to explore vegan and vegetarian diets or already dedicated to the path, Vege USA is a shop committed to an animal free recreating of meat, chicken and fish and a great place to dive deep into the philosophy.

Vege USA, 1425 South Myrtle Avenue, Monrovia, CA 91016
Phone – 626-386-0800          web site – vegetarian-plus.com

Tempting South Indian Exploration

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Annapurna Cuisine in Culver City serves up the relatively hidden Southern Indian food. This vegetarian restaurant skips the chicken tikka masala and tandoori for dishes such as dosa, uthappams and vada.  If these terms seem foreign, than this is the place to expand your Indian repertoire.

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We inaugurated our research with a cool and innovative rose lassi. The sweet, thick, creamy yogurt drink is tinted with rose water creating a mild floral finish to the “smoothie”.

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From the appetizer menu we found the medu vada, spicy lentil doughnuts that are crisp skinned with light and fluffy insides, to be an exciting flavor and texture profile.  The paruppu vada or dal vada are crumbly lentil donuts that have an extreme seeded texture.

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Sambar vada take lentil doughnuts and submerge them in sambar, a lentil and vegetable based broth. The porous vada soak up the tamarind and spice laden soup for an exciting mix of flavors and textures.

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Uthappam are pancakes made of fermented lentil and rice flours.  They can be topped with an assortment of vegetables, chili, herbs, cheese, etc. and are served with dipping condiments.

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Rava dosa are super thin crepes of rice and cream of wheat garnished with spices and herbs, served along with sambar.

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Annapurna also has a number of specialties that shouldn’t be missed.

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A mixed vegetable pulau is interspersed with greens, potato, carrots, peppers, onion and coconut milk, served with a side of raita.

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The puffed bread (puri) served with the chana masala looks like an alarmed blowfish and is the perfect vehicle for scooping up the heavenly spiced smooth and tender garbanzo beans.

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Their gobi Manchurian takes tender califlower coated in batter and deep fries it before gently covering it in a spicy red sauce.

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For dessert the beet, carrot, white pumpkin or cracked wheat halwa all shine with the warm, rich, flavor of ghee, milk, and sugar followed by the sweet, smokey roasted flavor of the vegetables. The satisfaction level of these desserts runs exceptionally high.

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For an in depth exploration of South Indian delicacies, Annapurna Cuisine on Venice is a great spot to learn how deep these flavors run and how supremely sating vegetarian food can be.

Annapurna Cuisine, 10200 Venice Boulevard, Culver City, CA 90232
Phone – 310-204-5500          web site – annapurnacuisine.com

Westside Okonomiyaki

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Sawtelle is a Los Angeles heaven for Japanese business. We love exploring the markets, restaurants and nurseries that dot the street, offering us a glimpse of Japanese culture and cuisine.

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Love Bake, just two months old, is the latest addition to the area now officially called Japantown.

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The minuscule space in the Olympic Collection at the corner of Sawtelle and Olympic makes Okonomiyaki, a pancake or crepe filled with a variety of ingredients chose by customers.

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They also have a breakfast set that includes their standout side dishes.

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Love Bake’s original tangy salad of parmesan cheese, mayonnaise dressing, ham, cucumber and sprouts is delightful in its simplistic flavor profile that balances the ingredients.  This salad makes a great lunch served with their gluten free mini cheese bread/bagels.

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The small round puffy rolls are gluten free, served warm and are a melty, cheesy amalgamation with a texture similar to mochi.

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We explored Love Bake’s vegetable creations which are available in gluten free, spicy and an original version.

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The instructions are simple.  First choose the form, folded into a crepe or flat like a pancake.  Then choose the fillings from a list posted on the wall.

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We went with a spicy pancake incorporating cheese and garlic that packs a hot kick derived from a blend of Japanese spice powders.

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We also sampled a pancake with a mix of tender asparagus and creamy avocado.  The okonomiyaki are served with side bowls of Kewpie mayonnaise, ketchup, honey or brown mustard and a sweet, thick sauce made especially for the dish. We liked a smear of the sweet brown sauce mixed with mayo and also found the honey mustard a delightful addition.  We prefer these veggie disks crispier to add another layer of texture and will request that next time we visit.

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They also make their own light and refreshing yogurt serve alongside a rich honey and we drizzled to our hearts content. Love Bake gives us a taste of Japanese okonomiyaki on the westside while making us feel like we have been transported to Japan.

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Love Bake, 11301 West Olympic Boulevard, Suite 122, Los Angeles, CA 90064
Phone – 310-478-7778          web site – lovebakela.com

Well Stocked Tiny Indian Market

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We love little markets and marvel at how much they can squish into the smallest of spaces. One such wonder is India Spices & Groceries.

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This tiny shop between La Cienega and Fairfax on Pico Boulevard, has an exotic produce section where burro bananas, squash, fresh herbs, coconut, eggplant and peppers are readily available.

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They stock everything needed for Indian vegetarian cooking including a wide assortment of legumes.

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Indian cuisine is distinct in its heavy handed use of both whole and ground spices and here they set aside lots of shelf space for these necessities.

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Both raw and roasted nuts are fresh and well priced with cashews, pistachio, peanuts and almonds available in a variety of sizes to accommodate any recipe.

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With the extended hot weather in India, preservation of fruits and vegetables is paramount and the pickle is an integral part of any Indian meal. In the market one can find pickles of carrot, mango chili, lime, garlic and stuffed red chili to start.

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Oils from coconut to mustard, sesame and more all add a distinct flavor to dishes.

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Ghee, a form of clarified butter and a classic ingredient of Indian cooking is offered in many brands. Through the boiling off of milk solids, butter can be preserved for longer periods, even when refrigeration is scarce or nonexistent.

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Alongside the Indian ingredients, India Spices & Groceries also carries traditional Indian cooking, serving, prayer and decorative ware.

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And lets not forget the beauty products that keep Indian women beautiful.

For an uncrowded, unhurried, one stop shop good for everything needed for the Indian vegetarian chef, India Spices & Groceries is an impressive little place to avoid the crowds, beat local prices and get in and out in a snap, which all come in very handy in our time crunched world.

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India Spices & Groceries, 5994 West Pico Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90035
Phone – 323-931-4871

Delightful Kurdish Food Abounds at Niroj

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We are thrilled to have found Niroj, which proudly serves up the only Kurdish food available in Southern California. Kurds, one of the most ancient peoples on the planet, inhabit Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Armenia and Georgia. The Kurdish menu varies depending on the country the Kurdish people live in, as well as influences of Armenians, Assyrians, Arabs, Persians and Turks who reside nearby.

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Fresh herbs, subtle spices and lots of vegetables native to each region, are the benchmarks of the cuisine. Nîroj sets itself apart with their reliance on local farmers who source unique herbs and spices, organic ingredients and free-range, hormone-free poultry and meats. They even grow many ingredients in their own Nîroj Garden Conejo Valley.

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Traditional restaurant seating and a more relaxed Kurdish style of couch-and-pillow dining is available.

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Our adventure began with freshly baked flat bread and dew/doogh, a Middle Eastern yogurt drink spiked with dried mint. Served in classic cups with ladles, this sour, cool, creamy beverage, gets the meal off to an exotic start.

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There are hot and cold appetizer menus that can constitute a meal in themselves.

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We dove into the mezze platter, a plate of cold dips.  The platter includes a coarse hummus, smokey baba ghanoush of charred eggplant intensified with tahini, garlic, herbs and extra virgin olive oil.  Riha ezme is a slightly sweet, red and green pepper puree amped up with tomatoes, white beans, parsley, garlic, onion, mint, walnuts, red pepper paste and pomegranate molasses. A lot is going on in each bite of this salad. Piyaz takes northern beans, parsley, red pepper paste, garlic and sumac, turning them into an exciting, textured bean salad. And finally the hesandin dip hits with a smooth heat as fire roasted red peppers combine with California walnuts, carrots and pomegranate molasses.

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If hot appetizers are more your style, meatballs are served with a smooth tahini dipping sauce.

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While rolled borek pair feta cheese, parsley and filo dough, creating a simple but addicting appetizer.

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Highly seasoned kobane falafel shine with greens, garlic, onions and native spices.  They are fried to elicit a crisp outer shell and soft fragrant centers. Niroj sipan are spicy lamb and beef meatballs rolled with jasmine rice, mozzarella cheese and topped with a yogurt, cucumber sauce.

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Owner and chef Luqman Barwari presented two different pide, often referred to as Turkish pizza.  One stuffed with a spicy spinach and creamy feta and another filled with mild sausage.  Pide are easy, fun and delicious.

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Kebabs are found all over the menu from chicken to lamb to beef.  And don’t miss the stews which pack some serious flavor.

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The marinated meats and poultry are grilled over open flames to get the flavor that can only be achieved from this cooking style.

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A lunch buffet is served Tuesday through Friday from 11:30 AM to 2:30 PM at a cost of $10.95. On the buffet you can sample a variety of Kurdish dishes which vary daily.  Today’s delicacies included their lentil soup.

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A mild spinach and potato dish.

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A remarkable lentil, beef and eggplant stew of Persian origin called khoreshteh qiemeh bademjoon, that satisfies completely.

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As does the moussaka, where spinach, eggplant and chewy cheese combine to form a sort of béchamel sauce over the vegetables. The buffet lunch comes with a salad, bread and an appetizer, making it a substantial meal at a great price.

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If there is any room left over, we strongly recommend giving the kunefe a try.  Shredded filo dough tops Kurdish goat cheese with homemade syrup and pistachios that meld into a warm, light, savory and sweet dish. Niroj makes a sublime version of this spectacular Middle Eastern pastry.

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For a taste of unique, satisfying and exciting Kurdish cuisine, a trip to Niroj offers a delicious and comprehensive sampling to be savored from every corner of Kurdish cultural influence.

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Niroj Kurdish Cuisine, 30313 Canwood Street, Agoura Hills, CA 91301
Phone – 818-889-7888          web site – nirojcuisine.com