At the new Indian restaurant in Costa Mesa called Nourish, you can’t order takeout chicken tikka masala or gorge yourself at an all-you-can-eat lunch buffet. This is a different kind of Indian place, one that operates by Ayurvedic tenets. Not knowing what that meant, I looked it up—and fell into a rabbit hole of information that, frankly, gets very technical very fast. Although I remain ignorant of the finer details, I read enough to discover it’s one of the oldest systems of medicine in the world, with roots in India. According to the National Institutes of Health, “It’s based on ancient writings that rely on a ‘natural’ and holistic approach to physical and mental health.”
But as it relates to food, all I really needed to know I learned from the restaurant’s website, which explains that Ayurvedic practitioners believe foods “such as grains, fruits, vegetables, seeds, beans, herbs and roots are vital carriers and balancers for the life force of the body.” What that means is Nourish serves vegetarian food, which shouldn’t be surprising since more than 30 percent of Indians are vegetarian. But it bans frozen or canned vegetables, as Ayurvedic cooks also believe that “the life force of food” is “destroyed or reduced” when it’s old or processed.
When I got to the restaurant on a Saturday, I wasn’t looking for a lack of a freezer. I did, however, notice the lack of Indian customers. It seems that Nourish—with its fast-casual setup and a wall painted to the ceiling with colorful flowers—caters more to Westerners attracted by the Ayurvedic lifestyle or who were vegetarian already. There was a young Asian couple seated at the counter and a middle-aged Caucasian woman who had just finished her meal while sitting cross-legged at an elevated carpeted area next to the door. And then there was a group of women with Czech accents to whom the owner paid special attention. I saw him sit with them to talk about the health benefits of Ayurveda, as if they weren’t already convinced.
For the other customers, the menu did the job for him. On the laminated sheet, the Holy Kitchari—rice, moong lentils and vegetables cooked together with spices into a mass resembling yellow-tinted oatmeal—is advertised as Ayurveda’s holy food. It’s purported to be good for “healing, digestive problems, cleansing, babies and spiritual clarity.” A bowl of it costs $9, but for a buck more each, there’s the option of “balancing your dosha” by adding fresh ginger, cilantro, coconut or lime, with each additional item marked by a symbol that refers to a chart of the “biological energies” it’s supposed to affect.
If you’re vegan, gluten intolerant, or averse to garlic and onion, there are symbols for those, too. Allergic to dairy, nuts, peanuts or soy? The menu has you covered. But what the symbols won’t tell you is whether you will enjoy the dish.
The more I ate of the Holy Kitchari, the more I disliked it. The bowl was bland—an adjective I never thought I’d use to describe an Indian meal. It also had the texture of baby food. If I was actually ill, had digestive issues or was an infant, I might have liked it better. But as a carnivore accustomed to high-sodium, high-fat, processed foods, it was difficult to reconcile the excess of good intentions with the lack of flavor I perceived.
What I ultimately decided is that the lens of a restaurant critic is the wrong one to use here. I didn’t belong to the audience for which this meal and this restaurant is intended. I was an outsider and a non-believer.
When I tried “The Nourishing Plate”—a thali sampler with rice, bread, sambar, dal, rice pudding and the three featured vegetable dishes of the day—I had trouble distinguishing the difference between the sambar, the dal and one of the featured veggies. I began to wonder: Were they all the same dish just repeated three times? Or was I just insensitive to the nuances of its spicing?
I liked the other two featured dishes on that platter—particularly the butternut squash, zucchini and bottle gourd prepared in the style of Thai green curry—but even here I had to keep myself from reaching for the salt shaker.
It wasn’t until I reread the restaurant’s manifesto that I found the enlightenment I was searching for: “All of our food is prepared mildly spiced and mildly salted, and our sweets tend to be mildly sweetened.”
Finally, it was the thing that explained the food in plain English and gave it context. If I had known it before going in, I might have approached the dishes with the proper expectations and perspective. But honestly, I think I still would’ve ended up at Wienerschnitzel immediately afterward, as I did that afternoon, chomping down a greasy corn dog with plenty of ketchup and mustard—my doshas be damned.
Nourish, 1170 Baker St., Ste. G2, Costa Mesa, (714) 617-4001; www.nourishayurveda.org. Open Mon.-Sat., 7:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Meals, $6-$17. No alcohol.
Before becoming an award-winning restaurant critic for OC Weekly in 2007, Edwin Goei went by the alias “elmomonster” on his blog Monster Munching, in which he once wrote a whole review in haiku.