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Tantra: Los Angeles gets the Zaika touch

Michael Hepworth was hoping to curry favour...

This high profile Indian restaurant in Los Angeles took has taken well over a year to open and $1 million to get off the ground according to owner Navraj Singh, who also happens to be the owner of the acclaimed India's Oven. His son R.J. also opened the well received Planet Indus in Westwood last year, and for 21 years the family has served budget Indian food. Now they have gone the whole hog and started working with Navraj's cousin Vineet Bhatia of Zaika fame in London, the first Indian chef in 102 years to receive a Michelin Star  for his innovative cuisine. The diminutive chef was in the restaurant the night we visited for Dine-Online , but because of his busy schedule he will only be able to come over a couple of times a year. A hot August night saw a big crowd sampling the food which is now prepared by one of his assistants Sanjay Dwivedi, head chef at Zaika for three years, and a newcomer to Los Angeles. He is still feeling his way with the produce, local eating habits and many other variables and differences from the London scene, let alone that of Delhi or Bombay. But see the update in the box, right!


When Tantra restaurant opened up in the Silverlake area of Los Angeles last year the advance hype probably did the Indian restaurant a disservice. Tantra means 'sacred sexuality' and is a religion dating back to 800AD when the first erotic temples in India were built. With the Vineet Bhatia influenced menu trying to recreate Zaika almost 6,000 miles away in London, Tantra promised a lot but failed to deliver in a few important areas. Now there is a new head chef, Sanjay Kumar, a charming and passionate master technician who has brought a new sense of vitality to the menu. Vineet's influence still remains, but the new chef comes in with a lot of new energy and style. Some things that work in London are not always guaranteed to work elsewhere, so some changes had to be made so that Tantra could move forward and set the standards for Indian food in this part of the world.

Trained in French and Italian styles, Sanjay learned his trade in Austria and Germany as well as the Taj Hotel Group in India. Now it looks like he has found a home to prepare such dishes as Mulayam Rattan, Lemon and Chili Scallops poached in a delicious scented coconut milk sauce. Presentation here is also of the Michelin class, and he does wonders with a crusted Chilean Sea Bass and a delectable salmon. The classic Rogan Josh remains a staple of the menu, and other interesting menu items include the Kesari Monkfish, and Saronwala Murg. The monkfish is done tandoori style and infused with saffron, ginger and green chillies, and the Murg is otherwise known as a chicken in a mustard curry sauce, very popular at the restaurant.

Tantra is well worth checking out as it continues to evolve in the ever expanded dining scene of Los Angeles 

Update August 2003

Dwivedi has incorporated a lot of the Zaika menu at Tantra, and the question is - will it be too advanced or sophisticated for the locals, or will they snap it up and go for it in a big way? The pervading style here is to go heavy on the masala, with almost half the menu opting for this style of cooking, and tofu seems to pop up also in a good percentage of the dishes. After three weeks in operation is not the best yardstick to judge a new venture, but Tantra is still a bit of a hit and miss and a lot of fine tuning and menu changing will probably be done. The fact that they also have a sexy hip bar with small dish selections for late night loungers will also create a buzz, as will the trendy décor selected by Sat Garg of Akar Studios in Santa Monica, whose vision is a reflection of the cosmic energy that is ignited when opposites (man and woman) are merged into one.

The walls are a deep yellow plaster in a wheat colored dining room that features several nooks and crannies and a rather crowded dining area. The music has to be loud to blot out all the high pitched conversations taking place, and the acoustics also present a bit of a problem, especially if you want to conduct an intimate hush-hush chat brought on by the spicy food. Also trying to duplicate London prices in this part of Los Angeles, the kind of equivalent of somewhere like Ladbroke Grove has caused a bit of resentment with a few of the locals.

Two of the better crossover dishes from England were the Tantra Platter at $12, a platter of salmon, spinach and tofu samosa, tandoori prawn, green chicken tikka with a sweet and sour potato salad that was delicious, and the Nariyal Scallops at $11. These are scallops poached in a coconut and lemon broth, and served with masala mashed potatoes, and I think that the use of exotic plates and cutlery to jazz up the food is a good idea.

Lots of nice cocktails at $7 a pop such as the Tears of Ganesha, Midori, Peach, Schnapps, Malibu, Sweet & Sour and Orange Juice, and the Fuzz, Absolut Citron, Triple Sec, Peach Schnapps, Pineapple, Orange, Sweet & Sour.

For a main course we stuck with the popular Gosht Dum Biryani at $15, a crusted lamb biryani cooked with spices and basmati rice, baked under a flaky crust and served with kachumber raita. The flavor was just right, not too spicy and served piping hot. The Nariyl Catfish Masala at $15, grilled catfish in a coconut lemon masala.

It would be nice to see a little bit of Balti on the menu, or maybe even a bit more Tandoori than the standard chicken or chicken tikka, but they seem to be going in the right direction and deserve the plaudits for attempting such a bold move in a town where dining habits can be extremely fickle.

Michael Hepworth October 2002 update August 2003

The Facts: Tantra-3705 Sunset Blvd, Silverlake, CA 90026
Tel 323.663.8268 
Dinner for 2 with wine or cocktail about $80 
Dress-Casual Atmosphere-Loud, noisy and a touch of London in Los Angeles. 
Food should catch on here, but still a way to go to match up entirely to Zaika's variety and authenticity.

UK Restaurant Reviews – The Best Of The Dine Online Restaurant Reviews 2001 - 2010

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