Restaurant Critique: Semma in the Village


The servers at Semma wander around in very long-sleeve black T-shirts printed with a white brand that states Unapologetic Indian. This is a reference to Unapologetic Meals, the corporation that runs Semma together with Dhamaka and Adda Indian Canteen. It is also the group’s slogan, a vow to give cuisine that pulls no punches.

With its sly implication that what other Indian restaurants are advertising is not quite the authentic thing, “Unapologetic Indian” is a virtuoso piece of marketing. You could also study it as a belated clap-again to the British Raj, which put an place with a person of the world’s wonderful culinary cultures less than the rule of colonial administrators from the nation that gave us mushy peas and bubble and squeak.

But following rooting all around for a when in the dishes coming out of Semma’s kitchen area, which has been working on Greenwich Avenue in the Village considering that Oct, I come across it tricky to picture any person on earth who would want an apology for foods this superior.

The chef, Vijay Kumar, grew up on a rice farm outside the city of Madurai in Tamil Nadu. At Semma, he offers the cooking of his house condition in distinct and of South India far more commonly. From the region’s very long and deep vegetarian traditions — it has many — Semma has extracted a variety of dishes that feel more modern day than you could possibly count on. Mulaikattiya thaniyam, a small, lastingly spicy salad of grated coconut and mung beans bearing pale, crisp, squiggly sprouts, could slide proper into the menu at just one of the much more critical plant-based nightspots in the East Village. So could the Mangalore huukosu, cauliflower fried in a chickpea-and-rice-flour batter and then dressed with coconut chutney.

Not that Mr. Kumar doesn’t present a few dishes that may make New York’s new vegan mayor drop his fork. But when Dhamaka double-dog dares you to try to eat goat testicles, the most eyebrow-increasing dish at Semma is most likely kudal varuval, a dry curry of goat intestines. It is notable for the warm aura forged by the caramelized onions and coconut milk in its thick gravy, and for the easygoing texture of the guts, neither difficult nor mushy but gently agency, like mortadella. You can even make a sandwich by folding some inside a soft triangle of the kal dosa served on the exact plate. I’d propose one of these little canapés to any person with an open mind about having at the tail end of the digestive tract.

When Adda arrived in Queens in 2018, adopted final calendar year by Dhamaka in Manhattan, their hanging visions of Indian delicacies seemed to be fueled by a private inventive breakthrough of their chef, Chintan Pandya. As an alternative of editing his indigenous country’s vast repertory to suit American fine-dining values, as he had accomplished at Junoon, or fusing it with other influences, as at Rahi, he went back to the supply, locating avenue snacks and property-model recipes whose unique energy hadn’t been refined out of existence by gurus in white jackets.

One particular point that helps make Semma so interesting is that it implies that Mr. Pandya had much more than a private epiphany. He appears to have hit on an technique that he can share with other cooks — the open up source code of Unapologetic Foods. (Mr. Pandya is the company chef and a spouse in the team, which is owned by Roni Mazumdar.)

Right up until final year, Mr. Kumar was the chef of Rasa, in Burlingame, Calif., the place the most well-known menu merchandise was a potato fritter on a bun, named a Bombay Slider. He described the cooking in a phone interview as “Southern Indian but with a ton of nearby California elements and a bit of present day technique.” At Semma, he said, “we are absolutely concentrating on true southern Indian foodstuff, just how we grew up having it again dwelling.”

Not possessing visited the Kumars’ rice paddy, I just can’t vouch for that. But at Semma he serves two dishes from his childhood that you’d have a tricky time locating at yet another New York cafe. A person is nathai pirattal, snails stir-fried with onions and tomatoes, soured with tamarind and served in a little box made of banana leaves. The other is Chettinad-style venison, a shank braised into sticky tenderness with star anise and a lichen referred to as black stone flower that is a single of the prized seasonings of the Chettinad pantry.

Dosas are much significantly less obscure. Almost any neighborhood South Indian cafe from Floral Park in Queens to Iselin, N.J., will make you a dosa. This does not imply you have permission to skip the triangular gunpowder dosa at Semma. It might effectively be extremely hard to make a dosa with a far more extraordinary contrast in between its crisp, amber-brown griddled exterior and the tender, spongy inside it appears to be physically unattainable for these two extremes to be united on a thing no thicker than a potato chip. The typical filling of smooth potato masala, yellow with turmeric and freckled with mustard seeds, is launched into orbit by the thrumming heat of a ground-chile spice mix — the gunpowder.

The pleasure that Adda and Dhamaka create via the uncooked electric power of rustic cooking Semma receives as a substitute from the brightness of its chutneys, the richness of its coconut-milk sauces, the dense layerings of ginger and freshly ground spices. Semma also has a lengthier, much more varied menu, and pays nearer focus to veggies, generating it simpler to fill the desk with dishes that all have a thing distinct to say.

These comparisons are not intended as criticisms. Semma is more substantial and far more high-priced than its Unapologetic siblings, and it is constructed for a a lot more cozy, leisurely night. The area was formerly Rahi’s. The extended, inviting bar has stayed, but now there are woven mats on the ceiling and wicker-basket hanging lamps, a foretaste of the kitchen’s shift toward tropical areas. The inside is now brighter and a lot more colourful, nevertheless for sheer jumpy strength it has a tough time maintaining up with the gyrations of the South Indian pop playlist.

The wine listing, an afterthought at the other two Unapologetic places to eat, is concise but purposeful it would seem to have been put with each other by any individual who has apply having Indian food items with wine. There are some out-of-the-normal beers, alongside with a handful of cocktails infused with issues like curry leaves and cardamom. Why you just can’t get a cup of tea is further than me, but I’m not keeping my breath waiting for an apology.

What the Stars Imply Because of the pandemic, places to eat are not currently being provided star rankings.

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