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Cafe Critique: Semma in the Village

The servers at Semma stroll all over in extended-sleeve black T-shirts printed with a white logo that states Unapologetic Indian. This is a reference to Unapologetic Foods, the organization that runs Semma alongside with Dhamaka and Adda Indian Canteen. It is also the group’s slogan, a vow to give delicacies that pulls no punches.

With its sly implication that what other Indian restaurants are promoting isn’t rather the true point, “Unapologetic Indian” is a virtuoso piece of promoting. You could also read it as a belated clap-back to the British Raj, which set an place with 1 of the world’s terrific culinary cultures less than the rule of colonial administrators from the state that gave us mushy peas and bubble and squeak.

But immediately after rooting all over for a when in the dishes coming out of Semma’s kitchen, which has been working on Greenwich Avenue in the Village due to the fact Oct, I come across it tough to think about everyone on earth who would want an apology for food stuff this great.

The chef, Vijay Kumar, grew up on a rice farm outside the metropolis of Madurai in Tamil Nadu. At Semma, he provides the cooking of his household point out in certain and of South India extra generally. From the region’s very long and deep vegetarian traditions — it has quite a few — Semma has extracted a quantity of dishes that feel far more modern day than you may possibly expect. 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 a single of the far more really serious plant-dependent 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 provide a couple dishes that could make New York’s new vegan mayor drop his fork. But while Dhamaka double-pet dog dares you to take in goat testicles, the most eyebrow-raising dish at Semma is in all probability kudal varuval, a dry curry of goat intestines. It is noteworthy for the warm aura cast 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 similar plate. I’d advocate just one of these minor canapés to any one with an open up brain about eating at the tail stop of the digestive tract.

When Adda arrived in Queens in 2018, adopted last year by Dhamaka in Manhattan, their putting visions of Indian delicacies appeared to be fueled by a own creative breakthrough of their chef, Chintan Pandya. Alternatively of editing his indigenous country’s vast repertory to go well with American great-dining values, as he experienced done at Junoon, or fusing it with other influences, as at Rahi, he went again to the supply, locating road snacks and property-style recipes whose primary ability hadn’t been refined out of existence by experts in white jackets.

1 issue that helps make Semma so remarkable is that it indicates that Mr. Pandya experienced a lot more than a personal epiphany. He seems to have strike on an method that he can share with other cooks — the open source code of Unapologetic Meals. (Mr. Pandya is the company chef and a associate in the group, which is owned by Roni Mazumdar.)

Until eventually last year, Mr. Kumar was the chef of Rasa, in Burlingame, Calif., the place the most well-known menu product was a potato fritter on a bun, referred to as a Bombay Slider. He described the cooking in a cell phone interview as “Southern Indian but with a ton of neighborhood California ingredients and a bit of present day procedure.” At Semma, he explained, “we are entirely focusing on legitimate southern Indian food stuff, particularly how we grew up consuming it back again house.”

Not possessing visited the Kumars’ rice paddy, I just cannot vouch for that. But at Semma he serves two dishes from his childhood that you’d have a challenging time locating at yet another New York cafe. A single is nathai pirattal, snails stir-fried with onions and tomatoes, soured with tamarind and served in a tiny box made of banana leaves. The other is Chettinad-type venison, a shank braised into sticky tenderness with star anise and a lichen referred to as black stone flower that is 1 of the prized seasonings of the Chettinad pantry.

Dosas are a great deal significantly less obscure. Pretty much any regional South Indian restaurant from Floral Park in Queens to Iselin, N.J., will make you a dosa. This does not mean you have permission to skip the triangular gunpowder dosa at Semma. It could effectively be unattainable to make a dosa with a much more remarkable contrast amongst its crisp, amber-brown griddled exterior and the tender, spongy interior it appears to be bodily unachievable for these two extremes to be united on some thing no thicker than a potato chip. The conventional filling of comfortable potato masala, yellow with turmeric and freckled with mustard seeds, is launched into orbit by the thrumming warmth of a floor-chile spice mix — the gunpowder.

The excitement that Adda and Dhamaka make via the raw ability of rustic cooking Semma will get instead 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, extra diverse menu, and pays closer notice to veggies, creating it much easier to fill the desk with dishes that all have some thing distinct to say.

These comparisons are not intended as criticisms. Semma is larger and additional high priced than its Unapologetic siblings, and it is created for a a lot more comfy, leisurely night. The place was previously Rahi’s. The prolonged, 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 towards tropical areas. The inside is now brighter and additional vibrant, although for sheer jumpy electrical power it has a hard time maintaining up with the gyrations of the South Indian pop playlist.

The wine checklist, an afterthought at the other two Unapologetic places to eat, is concise but purposeful it seems to have been put collectively by somebody who has practice consuming Indian meals with wine. There are some out-of-the-everyday beers, along with a handful of cocktails infused with factors like curry leaves and cardamom. Why you can not get a cup of tea is further than me, but I’m not holding my breath ready for an apology.

What the Stars Signify Simply because of the pandemic, dining places are not remaining supplied star ratings.