It’s been five years, three locations, and one global pandemic since Ashwini Jhaveri first decided to open up her Indian restaurant Imli (stylized as IMLI). The journey has taken her from Downtown LA to Whittier, from fast casual dining with office workers in mind to an all-day restaurant with three distinct culinary styles. The process has also taken a toll on Jhaveri and her partner and husband Nish, though all told she seems to be handling it better than most.
“You know what? There’s a reason why some things don’t happen when they’re supposed to,” says Jhaveri, sitting at a wooden picnic table inside Poet Gardens, the redone multi-use building — part food hall, part brewery, part patio hangout space — owned and operated by Ricardo Diaz in Whittier. Diaz has a long history of running successful restaurants southeast of Downtown LA, and now he’s helping Jhaveri and chef/partner Nikhil Merchant to bring Imli to life. Currently that means an open concept kitchen inside Poet Gardens that turns out a rotating menu of Indian snacks and curries, plus ongoing one-off dishes that showcase the regional diversity of Indian cooking.
It’s been a fine home for Jhaveri and Merchant to ride out much of the pandemic, but their real plans are just on the other side of the wall, in a separate but adjacent space. The new Imli, the real Imli, will be its own, more personal, thing, a connection to Ash Jhaveri and Merchant’s past in India, and to Nish’s time growing up in Southern California. It’ll be everything that the first restaurant idea was not, packaged in a whole new shell and set in a whole new city.
Instead of the grab-and-go aesthetic, the build-out (now roughly 75 percent complete) will feature a chai bar at the front, banked against tall windows, for morning drinks, snacks, baked goods, and other treats. An open kitchen abutting a row of tables will feature different street food cooking setups behind glass, including a tandoor oven, while a larger formal kitchen in the far back (also visible from the dining room) will work for more fully-formatted dinner dishes and those rotating specials Merchant has been tinkering with for months. It’s all rather ambitious, but Jhaveri, as always, remains undeterred.
“The excitement of being able to do this, to stand out from other Indian restaurants, was important for us,” says Jhaveri. “And it kind of matches with the idea of different stalls [at Poet Gardens]. So we decided just to take the plunge.”
“It’s kind of nice to be fluid,” says Merchant of the open and flowing space with its differing menus and all-day appeal. “With our Indian food, if we want to showcase what we really do, we need to have these non-restrictive ideas” about what to put on a menu, when to serve it, and the restaurant package in which it lives. “I feel like this is that unique concept that we wanted. This journey overall has helped us put forward the best version of Imli that there could be.”
“Our real competition is the burger joint down the street, is the pizza place down the street,” says Nish Jhaveri. “That’s the comfort food, the food everyone knows, the takeout place. That approachability, with me knowing both the [Indian and Southern California] cultures, being able to assimilate what our message is, that’s important to us.”
For now, the Jhaveris and Merchant have been bridging any cultural or culinary divides from their small corner kitchen inside Poet Gardens, serving food on weekends and those regional specials by preorder. The latter, part of what the team is calling the Golden Quadrangle Series, features everything from soups formerly reserved for royals to the Goan pork dish sorpotel, an intensive and aromatic curry that can take days to prepare.
It’s all a way to meet the faces they plan to feed once the proper Imli opens up later this year, and to make connections over the food they love. “The food empowers us to show people who we really are,” says Merchant, who has been using his Instagram page to show off his regional cooking skills and to support the ongoing Indian public health crisis during the coronavirus pandemic. “We’re already building an audience.”
Now all that’s left to do is get Imli to the finish line, though that feels easier said than done after so many years of waiting, trying, hoping. The plan is to open in just a few months, and the excitement to cross into a new phase is, for each of them, palpable.
“We’ve gone through so many transitions, and had to adapt, to adjust, to pivot,” says Nish. “Ultimately, it’s been a blessing because it’s allowed us to craft the most ideal concept that we’ve wanted to have for our Indian food. Now seeing it come to fruition, it’s just amazing. The weight of the world is being lifted off your shoulders, but at the same time you worry. You have anxiety, all these mixed emotions.”
“Soon we’ll have an open restaurant,” adds Jhaveri with a laugh, pointing out all of the existing issues — long hours, low margins, trouble finding staff — that come with even successful restaurant ventures. “Be careful what you wish for!”