The servers at Semma stroll round in long-sleeve black T-shirts printed with a white brand that claims Unapologetic Indian. This can be a reference to Unapologetic Meals, the corporate that runs Semma together with Dhamaka and Adda Indian Canteen. It’s additionally the group’s slogan, a vow to supply delicacies that pulls no punches.
With its sly implication that what different Indian eating places are promoting isn’t fairly the actual factor, “Unapologetic Indian” is a virtuoso piece of promoting. You may additionally learn it as a belated clap-back to the British Raj, which put an space with one of many world’s nice culinary cultures underneath the rule of colonial directors from the nation that gave us mushy peas and bubble and squeak.
However after rooting round for some time within the dishes popping out of Semma’s kitchen, which has been working on Greenwich Avenue within the Village since October, I discover it exhausting to think about anybody on earth who would need an apology for meals this good.
The chef, Vijay Kumar, grew up on a rice farm exterior the town of Madurai in Tamil Nadu. At Semma, he presents the cooking of his residence state specifically and of South India extra typically. From the area’s lengthy and deep vegetarian traditions — it has a number of — Semma has extracted plenty of dishes that appear extra up to date than you would possibly anticipate. Mulaikattiya thaniyam, a small, lastingly spicy salad of grated coconut and mung beans bearing pale, crisp, squiggly sprouts, may slide proper into the menu at one of many extra critical plant-based nightspots within the East Village. So may the Mangalore huukosu, cauliflower fried in a chickpea-and-rice-flour batter after which dressed with coconut chutney.
Not that Mr. Kumar doesn’t supply just a few dishes that may make New York’s new vegan mayor drop his fork. However whereas Dhamaka double-dog dares you to eat goat testicles, essentially the most eyebrow-raising dish at Semma might be kudal varuval, a dry curry of goat intestines. It’s notable for the nice and cozy aura solid by the caramelized onions and coconut milk in its thick gravy, and for the easygoing texture of the heart, neither robust nor mushy however gently agency, like mortadella. You’ll be able to even make a sandwich by folding some inside a tender triangle of the kal dosa served on the identical plate. I’d suggest considered one of these little canapés to anyone with an open thoughts about consuming on the tail finish of the digestive tract.
When Adda arrived in Queens in 2018, adopted final yr by Dhamaka in Manhattan, their placing visions of Indian delicacies appeared to be fueled by a private inventive breakthrough of their chef, Chintan Pandya. As a substitute of modifying his native nation’s huge repertory to go well with American fine-dining values, as he had finished at Junoon, or fusing it with different influences, as at Rahi, he went again to the supply, finding avenue snacks and home-style recipes whose unique energy hadn’t been refined out of existence by professionals in white jackets.
One factor that makes Semma so thrilling is that it means that Mr. Pandya had greater than a personal epiphany. He appears to have hit on an method that he can share with different cooks — the open supply code of Unapologetic Meals. (Mr. Pandya is the company chef and a accomplice within the group, which is owned by Roni Mazumdar.)
Till final yr, Mr. Kumar was the chef of Rasa, in Burlingame, Calif., the place the most well-liked menu merchandise was a potato fritter on a bun, known as a Bombay Slider. He described the cooking in a telephone interview as “Southern Indian however with plenty of native California substances and a bit of recent method.” At Semma, he stated, “we’re fully specializing in true southern Indian meals, precisely how we grew up consuming it again residence.”
Not having visited the Kumars’ rice paddy, I can’t vouch for that. However at Semma he serves two dishes from his childhood that you simply’d have a tough time discovering at one other New York restaurant. One is nathai pirattal, snails stir-fried with onions and tomatoes, soured with tamarind and served in a small field manufactured from banana leaves. The opposite is Chettinad-style venison, a shank braised into sticky tenderness with star anise and a lichen known as black stone flower that is among the prized seasonings of the Chettinad pantry.
Dosas are a lot much less obscure. Nearly any native South Indian restaurant from Floral Park in Queens to Iselin, N.J., will make you a dosa. This doesn’t imply you will have permission to skip the triangular gunpowder dosa at Semma. It could be inconceivable to make a dosa with a extra dramatic distinction between its crisp, amber-brown griddled exterior and the tender, spongy inside; it appears bodily inconceivable for these two extremes to be united on one thing no thicker than a potato chip. The usual filling of sentimental potato masala, yellow with turmeric and freckled with mustard seeds, is launched into orbit by the thrumming warmth of a ground-chile spice mix — the gunpowder.
The joy that Adda and Dhamaka generate by the uncooked energy of rustic cooking Semma will get as an alternative from the brightness of its chutneys, the richness of its coconut-milk sauces, the dense layerings of ginger and freshly floor spices. Semma additionally has an extended, extra various menu, and pays nearer consideration to greens, making it simpler to fill the desk with dishes that every one have one thing totally different to say.
These comparisons are usually not meant as criticisms. Semma is bigger and dearer than its Unapologetic siblings, and it’s constructed for a extra snug, leisurely night time. The area was previously Rahi’s. The lengthy, inviting bar has stayed, however now there are woven mats on the ceiling and wicker-basket hanging lamps, a foretaste of the kitchen’s shift towards tropical areas. The inside is now brighter and extra colourful, although for sheer jumpy power it has a tough time maintaining with the gyrations of the South Indian pop playlist.
The wine record, an afterthought on the different two Unapologetic eating places, is concise however purposeful; it appears to have been put collectively by any individual who has follow consuming Indian meals with wine. There are some out-of-the-ordinary beers, together with a handful of cocktails infused with issues like curry leaves and cardamom. Why you possibly can’t get a cup of tea is past me, however I’m not holding my breath ready for an apology.
What the Stars Imply Due to the pandemic, eating places are usually not being given star rankings.