Walk into Laguna Hills Lulu’s Cafe on a Friday night and you’ll be greeted by a server with one simple question, “Indian or French?” In June, Chef Samrat Bhosle bought the place with no intention of changing the bistro’s preexisting brunch operation. When Bhosle took over, Lulu (the original owner who still works at the restaurant) explained that the restaurant has always been a hot spot for breakfast and lunch but has never drawn a dinner crowd worth staying open for.
“That’s when I decided I’d start doing my Malvani food,” Bhosle says, referring to the foodways of the city of Malvan. Originally from Bombay, Bhosle has cooked Indian cuisine for over 23 years. He says the name 5 Freeway Gomantak is a tribute to the coastal region of India, made up of Maharashtra, Goa, and Karnataka. Starting on October 21st, every weekend has seen Lulu’s transform into a Indian coastal cuisine pop-up, inspired by the dishes, flavors and culture of his hometown. Diners have traveled as far as Los Angeles, Torrance and San Diego to try his food, the only one of its kinds in Southern California.
The menu is comprised of vibrant seafood specialties like the pomfret fry, a white buttery fish coated in spiced semolina and rice flour that’s fried until golden crispy. The crust seals in all the juices, making for an incredibly moist fish and great starter.
Most of Bhosle’s dishes are coconut-based, “The coastal part of India uses roasted coconut and spices different from North Indian cuisine,” he says. “And we use 14 different spices for our curry.” The fish curry calls for meaty king fish (Indo-Pacific king mackerel) cooked in freshly ground green coconut and savory spices; the gravy is rich and complex, so make sure to order a side of chapati (Indian flatbread) for dipping.
The clams tisrya masala use Manila clams cooked in a spicy roasted-coconut masala. The dish is robust with cardamom, cinnamon, nutmeg and clove that linger on the tongue. Can’t decide? Just go for the thali, the subcontinental combo plate.
Bhosle says this is his passion project, and hopes to grow his dinners into a daily thing.
“I grew up eating my mother’s Malvani home cooking,” he says. “I want to share some of her seafood dishes I grew up with.”
5 Freeway Gomantak, 24781 Alicia Pkwy., Ste. E., Laguna Hills, (949) 855-2222. Open Friday-Sunday, 5:30 p.m.-9:30 p.m.