Located near the western end of Little India, where Newark Avenue tails off into the swampy Meadowlands, Chutneys resembles a mini-chain of the same name based in Hyderabad, capital of the southern state of Telangana. "We’ve refined the concept of the Chutneys in India," the restaurant’s proprietor asserted enthusiastically over the phone, then added sheepishly, "but we’re not related." The deep premises sports two rows of plush scarlet booths, each big enough for an entire family. The table settings include stainless steel drinking glasses, water pitchers, and chutney caddies offering a lavish assortment of six. Included are an unusual curry-leaf chutney, a generous cup of ghee, a zippy tomato chutney, and a spicy peanut powder that you might want to dump on everything. True to its name and gimmick, the restaurant offers 12 chutneys in all, available as extras for $1.99 each.
Yes, there are dosas galore. If you’ve never had one, check out the fiery mysore masala dosa ($6.49) or the mellower butter masala dosa ($5.99). For something more byzantine, head for "Chutney’s classic dosa," which is anything but classic: the filling runs to the frankly bizarre mixture of potatoes, raw baby spinach, crumbled paneer, cubed carrots, and melted cheddar. For the curator of obscure regional oddities, the steamed dosa ($8.99) might be the perfect thing. Rather than being fried thin and crisp, this pancake has been cooked in a steamer to something pale and spongy. Be forewarned it lacks the usual oniony potato filling; in fact, it lacks any filling at all. Then there’s MLA pesarattu, a mung-bean flapjack flavored with cumin and ginger. In this case the filling is upma – a cream of rice doctored with butter, chiles, and black mustard seeds that can be purchased separately ($6.99), making an excellent stoner’s breakfast.
But what Chutneys does with dosas pales in comparison to its wizardry with idli – the white dumplings shaped like flying saucers. Named after a region of the Tamil Nadu state, Chettinad idli ($6.99) betokens deep-friend spongy fingers heaped with a chunky lentil-tamarind sauce, a good choice if you’ve got a sweet tooth. "Mini ghee idli" turns out to be darling little baby idlis bobbing in a brown gravy, while most unusual of all is the so-called gongura sandwich – two humongous idlis cut like Kaiser rolls and smeared with a gritty filling that will set your mouth on fire, made from a leafy plant essential to Telugu cuisine.
Another equally novel curry is aimed at Jains, a religious group that eschews onions and garlic.
Wandering around the menu you’ll discover such Indian-Chinese appetizers as the highly recommended gobi 65 – small nuggets of cauliflower annealed with a bright red glaze; and northern Indian curries, including a wonderful mushroom masala ($10.99). The curries on Chutneys’ menu will be familiar to anyone accustomed to eating Indian food on, say, the Upper West Side, with the exception of a few of the crazier ones, such as kaju masala, featuring cashews bobbing in tomato sauce. Another equally novel curry is aimed at Jains, a religious group that eschews onions and garlic. Nilgiri korma ($9.99) glows an eerie shade of green, a diverse collection of vegetables in a sauce of pureed fresh mint. Don’t worry, it doesn’t taste like toothpaste!
But the real gems of the menu might be the home-style rice-based stews and casseroles, which include pongal (cooked with ginger, black peppercorns, and ghee) and curd rice (cooked with yogurt and curry leaves). A friend who grew up in Houston but often returned to India to visit his family in Bangalore pointed to the mellifluous-sounding bis bela bath ($7.99) and exclaimed, "My grannie makes that. I never expected to find it on an Indian menu in New Jersey." This delectable damp risotto of crushed rice and veggies in a shredded coconut sauce is scented with asafoetida: a tree resin that tastes like onions, which gave the English language the word "fetid."
Indeed, when it comes to presenting obscure regional specialties restricted to small geographic areas of South India, Chutneys is without peer. And currently, there’s no better dining adventure in (or out) of the five boroughs.
Photographer: Khushbu Shah.