The spice is right
By Nancy D. Lackey Shaffer 07/31/2014
2310 E. Thousand Oaks Blvd.
Thousand Oaks’ newest Indian restaurant, Akash, just opened in May, but already it has the palates of Conejo Valley customers humming. It took over the space most famously held by Cafe Provencal, the popular French bistro that closed its doors in 2012 and, judging from the buzz, it’s off to a good start. Akash has a promising pedigree (it’s a sister restaurant to the very popular Shalimar of Woodland Hills) and an auspicious name (akash means sky in Hindi), but it’s the expertly prepared cuisine that draws a crowd, even on a weeknight.
At least, that’s what we found on a recent Thursday evening. Not wall-to-wall customers, admittedly, but still fairly busy — a decent turnout for any restaurant in the middle of the week. The site maintains a bistro feel, with just a handful of changes: the banquette on the right remains, while booths have been added to the other side. Ornately carved tiles on the ceiling are one of the few concessions to exoticism. Akash has kept the décor modest, warm and inviting.
The service is, without question, impeccable. The genial wait staff seated us quickly and had a plate of papadam and sauces on the table almost as soon as we had settled in. Our water glasses were just as quickly filled, and never seemed to be empty. Questions about the extensive menu (curries, vindaloo, biryani and a dizzying array of vegetarian dishes are all available) were patiently and thoroughly answered. When it came time to place our order, we asked for some recommendations. Our host did us one better, helping us design a feast fit for a sultan, showcasing a variety of textures and flavors.
I was impressed by the sauces that came with our papadam, a spicy-sweet tamarind, piquant mint and chili and cooling yogurt. All tasted fresh and lively, and were as delicious with our appetizers and entrees as they were with the obligatory lentil crackers. I am of the opinion that every Indian meal should begin with samosas — potatoes, peas, onions and spices wrapped in a thin dough and fried; what’s not to love? Akash’s version is on the larger side, and were serviceable if not spectacular. The mixed vegetable fritters known as pakoras, on the other hand, tasted a little stale and were just a touch rubbery; I suspect some reheating was going on.
The mediocre appetizers were outliers, though; everything else brought to our table was excellent. Tandoori chicken is about as traditional as it gets for Northern Indian cuisine, and Akash might be serving the best version in Ventura County. Large, sizzling chicken quarters, deep red with spice and glistening with ghee, moist and flavorful to the bone; this is Indian roast chicken done right. The potato and cauliflower in the aloo gobi are chopped in sizable chunks, all the better to maintain their texture and form. A creamy korma (mildly spiced at our waiter’s suggestion so as not to overwhelm the delicate vegetable flavors) contrasted nicely with the fiery and tangy lamb bhuna, prepared with garlic, ginger and tomatoes. With plenty of naan bread and mushroom rice pilaf on hand, we happily sopped up every savory drop. Less familiar dishes include karahi (a stew in an iron pot), sweet and sour patia and rich jalphrarezy — all intriguing enough to warrant a second visit.
To finish off the meal, we shared a dish of kheer, a somewhat soupy rice pudding made with coconut milk. This is a humble dish, to be sure, but just the right amount of sweetness after the cacophony of flavors and a great way to cool a palate bombarded with spice. Other Indian sweets — including cheese balls with pistachios and wheat balls in syrup — are also available.
A crisp IPA or off-dry viognier makes an excellent accompaniment to Indian food. Regrettably, Akash doesn’t serve beer or wine as of yet. While the liquor license gets sorted out, I suggest diners content themselves with a luscious mango lassi or tongue-tingling chai tea. You can always pop across the street to The Lakes for a drink. Or shake up your cocktails at home and take advantage of Akash’s online ordering and delivery service through BeyondMenu — a smart move that should help grow their customer base.
It’s a little early to say if this charming Indian eatery will have the same decades-plus staying power as Cafe Provencal, but with good food, great service and a plum location near the Civic Arts Plaza, Akash seems to have the right recipe for success.