MY FIRST EXPOSURE to vegan food didn't come until college. It was at large, moldering houses named things like Enchanted Broccoli Forest, Synergy, Box of Rain—you get the picture—where men and women took communal showers and listened to Miles Davis albums. They shared the nightly responsibility of making massive, tahini-streaked carrot salads and off-yellow cook-downs (I can't wholeheartedly call them stews) of potatoes, beans, and spices their parents back in Dallas would chuckle about, like "curry powder." To be fair, nobody was a good cook in college, and at least they were trying.
Dishes at the Sudra—a new counter-service vegan Indian eatery in the Ocean complex—faintly remind me of the meals I occasionally partook of in those houses. Professional restaurant flourishes and finishes are to be found, and there is enough to enjoy, but this is very much earnest, young, bulk cooking. Given the harsh strictures of the vegan rule-set—they can't even use ghee, the foundational cooking fat of their sponsoring inspiration—they do a respectable job.
If you're not vegan, the primary function of this place is to get a big variety of nutrient-dense, plant-based food in you for a fair price, which tastes better than it sounds. A small $8 plate ($12 plates are large enough for two) will contain more kale, brown rice, legumes, and root vegetables than I typically encounter in a week, and for the most part the beans will be tender and nicely sauced, the kale flavorfully dressed. It's a healthful and serviceable detour from the burgers and pizza that dangle from the fingers of every other shop owner in town.
The brief menu consists of five combination plates and a massive kale salad, and the poori plate came together best. The greaseless poori, a puffed, deep-fried bread that does the duty of a tortilla, is an ideal vehicle for combining the sweet and creamy black-eyed-pea korma—maybe the best single item in the restaurant—with a mild potato masala, bright ribbons of nicely dressed, just-wilted collard greens, and the restaurant's house sauce, a thin cilantro-lemon puree that could use a kick of salt. The flavors benefit greatly from unity in a land without meat stock and fatback.
The chickpea cutlet plate offers two large, tender chickpea patties with a light, creamy interior, and comes with the Sudra's other workhorse green, a nicely balanced tahini-dressed kale that would be more tender if dressed in the morning, or the day before. The ginger-molasses roasted root vegetables are decent, but could really use a pop of caramelization to make them restaurant-caliber.
The pakora plate promises deep-fried pickled broccoli and cauliflower dumplings—think tempura, but with a thicker batter that stays a little too doughy inside, and a little soft outside. The blueberry-mint chutney makes sense as an acidic counterpoint, but I think someone's blueberry fascination is overreaching a bit (these oxidant-battling dandies also show up in the cocktails). Nowhere in my mental registry can I associate blueberries with great Indian food.
The calabacitas are little pan-fried dumplings of shredded zucchini and squash. While they are nearly light as air, they are bland, and the bell-pepper-heavy succotash that obscures them cannot rescue a dish where hot oil and seasoning have failed.
As before, even the small plates are generous, and they are best experienced with a supplemental dosa ($3) or poori ($3 for two). Go with the poori: The Sudra's dosa—a thin pancake of fermented rice lentil batter—was more soft than crisp, blonder than brown, nutty but not sour, more crêpe than cracker, almost like injera.
The cocktails ($8) are—and I searched for this word a long time—bonkers. Uniformly served long, in pint glasses with copious ice, they achieve the overall composition of a slap-dash hot-day punch. While the Beet Tequila and Blackberry Bourbon taste strongly and honorably of their namesake spirits, their soda water and fruit purees seem chemically unable to gel. Avoid the chalky yet slippery-textured Rum Chai: I almost foisted it onto a fellow critic from a rival newspaper who happened to have his nose buried in a book at the bar, but withheld. (The trenchcoat and folding bicycle were dead giveaways.)
But back to my earlier point about health. It may or may not be coincidence that the night after my first meal at the Sudra, I joined a gym and added a mile to my regular run. Perhaps choosing this place was part of my subconsciously closing the chapter on two years' worth of decadent gluttony (I'm retiring from this column in the next few weeks). I'm happy to be reminded that eating with an eye to the long view needn't be associated with total sacrifice.
Sun-Thurs 11 am-11 pm, Fri-Sat 11 am-midnight, happy hour daily 4-7 pm, and 9 pm-close.