Restaurant review: Semma in the village

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Semma’s waiters walk around in black, long-sleeved T-shirts printed with a white logo that says Unapologetic Indian. This is a reference to Food without excuse, the company that manages Semma with Dhamaka and Adda Indian Canteen. It is also the group’s slogan, the wish to offer unpretentious cuisine.

With its devious implication that what other Indian restaurants are selling isn’t quite true, “Unapologetic Indian” is a virtuoso marketing piece. You can also read it as a belated applause to the British Raj, who placed an area with one of the world’s greatest food cultures under the rule of the country’s colonial administrators who gave us peas, bubbles and squeaks. .

But after rummaging for a while through the dishes that come out of Semma’s kitchen, which has been operating on Greenwich Avenue in the village since October, I find it hard to imagine anyone on earth wanting an apology for a food too. good.

The chef, Vijay Kumar, grew up on a rice farm outside the town of Madurai in Tamil Nadu. In Semma, he presents the cuisine of his country of origin in particular and of South India more generally. From the region’s long and deep vegetarian tradition – it has several – Semma has extracted a number of dishes that seem more contemporary than you might think. Mulaikattiya thaniyam, a sustainably spiced small salad of grated coconut and mung bean bearing pale, crisp, wavy shoots, might slip right onto the menu at one of the more serious herbal nightclubs in the world. East Village. The same goes for Mangalore huukosu, cauliflower fried in a paste of chickpeas and rice flour, then dressed in a coconut chutney.

Not that Mr. Kumar isn’t offering a few dishes that might lower his fork for New York’s new vegan mayor. But while Dhamaka’s double dog challenges you to eat goat testicles, probably the most surprising dish in Semma is kudal varuval, a dry curry of goat intestines. It is distinguished by the warm aura of caramelized onions and coconut milk in its thick sauce, and the easy-going texture of tripe, neither hard nor mushy but slightly firm, like mortadella. You can even make a sandwich by folding a little inside a soft triangle of kal dosa served on the same plate. I would recommend one of these little canapes to anyone with an open mind to eating at the end of the digestive tract.

When Adda arrived in Queens in 2018, followed last year by Dhamaka in Manhattan, their striking visions of Indian cuisine seemed to be fueled by a personal creative breakthrough from their chef, Chintan Pandya. Instead of adapting the vast repertoire of his native country to the values ​​of American gastronomy, as he had done in Junoon, or merging it with other influences, such as in Rahi, he went back to the source, locating street snacks and homemade recipes whose original power had not been refined by professionals in white jackets.

One thing that makes Semma so exciting is that it suggests that Mr. Pandya had more than a private revelation. He seems to have found an approach he can share with other chefs: the open source code of Unapologetic Foods. (Mr. Pandya is the entrepreneur and a partner of the group, which is owned by Roni Mazumdar.)

Until last year, Mr. Kumar was the head of Rasa, in Burlingame, Calif., where the most popular menu item was a potato fritter on a bun, called the Bombay Slider. He described the cuisine in a phone interview as “South Indian but with lots of local Californian ingredients and a bit of modern technique”. At Semma, he said, “we completely focus on real South Indian cuisine, exactly how we grew up eating it at home.”

Not having visited the Kumar rice field, I cannot attest to this. But at Semma’s, he serves two dishes from his childhood that you’d be hard pressed to find at any other New York restaurant. One is the nathai pirattal, snails sautéed with onions and tomatoes, tangy with tamarind and served in a small box made from banana leaves. The other is Chettinad-style venison, a shank braised in a sticky tenderness with star anise and a lichen called black stone flower which is one of the most prized seasonings in Chettinad’s pantry.

The dosas are much less obscure. Almost every local South Indian restaurant, from Floral Park in Queens to Iselin, NJ, will give you a dosa. That doesn’t mean you have permission to skip Semma’s Triangular Dose of Gunpowder. It may not be possible to make a dosa with a more dramatic contrast between its crisp, toasted amber-brown exterior and its tender, spongy interior; it seems physically impossible that these two extremes come together on something no thicker than a potato chip. The standard soft potato masala filling, turmeric yellow and speckled with mustard seeds, is launched into orbit by the roaring heat of a blend of ground chili spices – gunpowder.

Rather, the excitement that Adda and Dhamaka generate through the raw power of rustic Semma cooking is the brilliance of its chutneys, the richness of its coconut milk sauces, the dense layers of ginger and freshly ground spices. Semma also offers a longer and more varied menu and pays more attention to vegetables, making it easier to fill the table with dishes that all have something different to say.

These comparisons are not criticisms. Semma is bigger and more expensive than its Unapologetic siblings, and it’s designed for a more comfortable, quieter night. The space was once Rahi’s. The long, inviting bar remained, but now there are woven rugs on the ceiling and wicker hanging lamps, a taste of the kitchen’s turn to the tropics. The interior is now brighter and more colorful, although for nervous energy it struggles to keep up with the gyrations of the South Indian pop playlist.

The wine list, an afterthought at the other two Unapologetic restaurants, is concise but useful; it seems to have been put together by someone who used to eat Indian food with wine. There are some standout beers, as well as a handful of cocktails infused with curry leaves and cardamom. Why can’t you have a cup of tea is beyond me, but I don’t hold my breath waiting for an apology.

What the stars mean Due to the pandemic, restaurants are not receiving stars.

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