In late September, four-year-old Greenwich Village Indian restaurant Rahi, by restaurateur Roni Mazumdar and chef Chintan Pandya, quietly papered up its windows and permanently shut down. In its place, Mazumdar and Pandya opened an entirely new restaurant on October 12 named Semma, at 60 Greenwich Avenue, near Seventh Avenue South, which focuses solely on spotlighting everyday South Indian fare.
“This is the first restaurant as a group that we’re doing where we’re focusing on a specific region of India,” Mazumdar says. “Our goal as a group is to demystify what Indian cuisine has been for so long, and this is one more step forward in that direction.”
For Semma’s debut, Pandya is handing the kitchen over to acclaimed chef Vijay Kumar, who previously spent five years running Michelin-starred South Indian restaurant Rasa in Burlingame, California. But while Rasa mixed in some pan-Indian dishes like butter chicken on its menu, the gloves are coming off at Semma. In the same way that Pandya used Dhamaka to dig deep into specific regional Indian dishes like Maharashtra’s paplet fry and West Bengal’s macher jhol, Kumar has shaped Semma as a platform for South Indian dining that goes far beyond the dosas and sambar that are most often associated with the region. Here, the chef is focused on seasonal dishes that highlight meat, coastal seafood, and vegetable crops like lentils that are found across small-town southern India. “I really tried to go so deep, like, this is literally how I grew up eating,” Kumar says. “We just wanted to bring that [experience] to New Yorkers.”
Kumar, who was raised in a small town in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu, designed the menu with heavy influences from his family’s farming background. Childhood memories of school holidays spent visiting his grandparents in their small village — catching and cooking snails with his grandmother and hunting deer with his grandfather — inspired Semma’s nathai pirattal, featuring Long Island snails prepared with ginger and tamarind, and a venison-laden Chettinad maan kari. Mulaikattiya thaniyam, an appetizer bursting with fresh vegetables and fruits including sprouted mung beans, coconut, and smoked chili, nods to Onam, an annual South Indian pre-harvest festival celebrating the year’s crops.
“These are things we don’t normally associate with India, because our picture of India that we have painted till now in the United States is mostly from the larger cities,” Mazumdar says. Semma’s menu has been wiped of anything that would not actually be found on a southern Indian family’s table, including naan bread, basmati rice, and paneer.
The restaurant itself has been gutted and redesigned with influences from the southern Indian state of Kerala, a lush, tropical destination dotted with palm trees that is often referred to as “God’s own country.” Raw, light wood accents the dining room, and the team installed thatched roofing to the ceiling of the restaurant to mimic the feel of a Keralan home.
The decision to shut down Rahi — the group’s highest revenue generating restaurant, according to Mazumdar, although not as critically successful as Adda and Dhamaka — was not an easy one, Pandya says. However, the pair agreed that Rahi, which sold a smattering of South Indian dishes alongside (extremely popular) chili cheese toasts and masala fried chicken sandwiches, no longer fit with the duo’s relentless mission to break apart stereotypes about Indian food as a monolith of chicken tikka masala and saag paneer. And Semma is only the latest in a string of upcoming fall and winter openings for the group: Rowdy Rooster and Kebabwala, both in the East Village, are showcasing a variety of Indian preparations of fried chicken and kebabs, respectively, and an expanded Masalawala is slated for a November debut in Park Slope.
“We’re a few restaurants old, but I think we’re just warming up toward how many different stories we can really tell off the Indian subcontinent,” Mazumdar says. “It’s such a constellation of all different cultures.”
Semma is open from Tuesday through Sunday, 5 to 10 p.m. Reservations are available via Resy.
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