Last year one of my favorite restaurants was Bhojan, a Curry Hill newcomer that peddled vegetarian Guajarati cuisine from India's wild wild west. It was an outpost of the empire of Indian dining impresario and B-list Bollywood actor Shiva Natarajan, whose other holdings in the city include Chola, Dhaba, Malai Marke, and Chote Nawab — oddly named after a 1961 movie nobody seems to like. But Natarajan has done more to popularize the regional cuisines of his native land than anyone before him, and has also been instrumental in remaking the restaurant scene on lower Lexington Avenue, nicknamed "Curry Hill" since the 1980s. The food at his establishments — at slightly elevated prices — is frequently excellent.
Which is why I was disappointed when Bhojan shuttered just as it was gaining traction, and Natarajan replaced it with Haldi, specializing in the food of Calcutta and Bengal. Sprinkled throughout the menu are a small collection of Jewish-Indian delicacies, real critic bait. I was there in a flash. The Indian-Jewish stuff proved OK, though lacking in nuance, but when I brought a Bengali friend to sample the food he'd grown up with, he wrinkled up his nose and exclaimed, "The curries are well-prepared and wholesome, but the place has got the spicing scheme all wrong!" And I had to agree: the food tasted way more Punjabi than Bengali, with a dearth of mustard oil and too many entrees awash in brown gravy.
Accordingly I did what critics must sometimes do and abandoned the project just as I was about to pay my third visit. Instead, I took a chance and dragged myself and my friends to another Natarajan restaurant a few doors down, Kokum. We found an interior decorated with hanging basket lamps and a mural of the high-prowed and brightly painted fishing boats of Kerala, India's southernmost state. The dining room was deep and narrow, with rows of tables along both walls. A bar at the end of the room dispensed beer, wine, and cocktails. Skip the awful cocktails, but do hoist a Kingfisher Beer — Indian suds with a touch of sourness, now being brewed in Saratoga Springs, just north of Albany.
Kokum features the food of South India, which is gradually taking over menus in Curry Hill.
Kokum features the food of South India, which is gradually taking over menus in Curry Hill. Not just the dosas, iddlies, and uttapams that were the harbingers of this fascinating collection of cuisines over a decade ago, but the meat, seafood, and chicken-bearing aspects of the cooking of Kerala, Karnataka, and Tamil Nadu states, including that of the cities of Chennai, Hyderabad, Bangalore, and Mangalore. Coconut, curry leaves, and black mustard seeds are dominant flavorings, while batters of ground-up rice and lentils are fermented to make pancakes and fritters.
Unfamiliar tropical fruits play a part, too, including the namesake kokum. This small round fruit is native to the Western Ghats, a mountain range that parallels the southwest Indian coast. Find it in three dishes on the restaurant's menu, including shrimp kokum ($12), four decent-size crustaceans marinated in kokum juice and sauteed with shallots and curry leaf — the astringent foliage of a small tropical tree. Another dish featuring the same red fruit is Nadan fish curry ($18), name-checking a 2013 film set in Kerala featuring an old-fashioned dramatic troupe on the skids. You'll need an Indian-film expert to ferret out all the obscure cinematic references on a Shiva Natarajan menu — though this particular dish turns out to be a plainish collection of tilapia chunks in a tart red sauce that is somewhat disappointing.
One surprising feature of the new wave of south Indian restaurants in Curry Hill is their habit of thrusting chicken eggs into the spotlight, and Kokum is no exception. Egg roast ($8.95) is one of the most agreeable apps; boiled specimens halved and heaped with spicy onions, seeming like a worthwhile spin on deviled eggs. Eggs occur in stealthier fashion in egg dosa, a crepe featuring the usual potato filling. But when you cut into it you'll find an egg annealed to the inside of the pancake. In likewise fashion, eggs appear as the star of the show in a biryani; scrambled with tomatoes, chiles, and torn-up flatbread in egg kothu paratha (like some mutant bread pudding); and most spectacularly in egg appam, bowl-shaped breads, each with a runny fried egg at the bottom, sided with a vegetarian or non-vegetarian curry.
No matter how many times you visit Kokum, you're likely to stumble on something you'll fall in love with.
In south Indian cuisines, one also finds many curries thickened with coconut milk as well as lots of homely vegetarian dishes featuring mixtures of rice, lentils, and vegetables. Pumpkin tossed with blackeyed peas yields erissery ($12.95), which might be the name of a Roman poet. The beans add a smoky flavor to the squash's sweetness, and the dish is utterly delicious. In bisi bela Houliana, a recipe from Bangalore, rice is stewed with all sorts of vegetables, and made tart with tamarind pulp. The dish is usually named bis bela bath — who knows why Natarajan tacked an Irish-sounding name on the end?
Ultimately, though the menu often reads like some extended joke that we can't quite understand, the food is often spectacular. The menu boasts around 125 choices, and no matter how many times you visit Kokum, you're likely to stumble on something you'll fall in love with before you reach the bottom of the serving bowl. Here's hoping this place, in contrast to Bhojan, remains open.
Cost: App, dosa, meat curry, vegetarian dish, and two beverages shared by two people with tax but not tip, $70
Sample dishes: Egg appam with stew on the side, erissery (pumpkin and blackeyed pea porridge), kori gassi (red chicken curry), shrimp kokum.
What to drink: Omit the mixed drinks in favor of Kingfisher lager.
Bonus tip: This is a restaurant where it's very easy to eat vegetarian or even vegan; don't hesitate to do so, because the meatless dishes are actually on the average better than the carnivorous ones.