The gunpowder dosa hits the table, not as a tube but a triangle. It’s a perfect equilateral triangle, too, a work of art with sienna and umber swirls on its dark and inviting surface. Drenched with ghee, that surface is supremely thin, crisp, and buttery. Inside, the potato filling is typical of the masala dosas one gets in Jersey City or Washington Square Park, only finer in texture, and small cups of creamy coconut and zingier tomato chutney accompany, along with a sambar chunky enough you won’t try dipping the dosa, but instead, you will treat the sambar as a separate soup.
With its unctuous crunchiness, approachable size, and tasty potato filling, this just might be the best dosa in town, something a talented cook back in southern India might make, and not the behemoth tubular renditions one mainly finds here. The “gunpowder” refers to the red spice powder sprinkled on the inside of the wrapper, peppery but not overwhelmingly so.
Indeed, this emphasis on dishes as they are actually found in southern India — principally in places like Kerala, Karnataka, Goa, Andhra Pradesh, and Tamil Nadu, chef Vijay Kumar’s home state — is reminiscent of Adda, an earlier project of Roni Mazumdar and chef Chintan Pandya that focused on northern Indian food, rendered in a folksy fashion. Kumar spent 12 years cooking in California before coming to NYC four months ago, he tells me, and maybe that adds a certain stylishness to the platings, which are often arranged in playful geometric shapes.
Is Semma — meaning “fantastic” in Tamil — destined to be the flagship of Mazumdar and Pandya’s revolutionary Indian food fleet? While Dhamaka is hemmed inside what amounts to a supermarket, Semma has a spacious and fully realized interior design. Basket lamps that recall the rice barges of Kerala float above a white marble bar, opposite a line of tables with a patterned banquette of undulant orange stripes. Up a few steps in the back of the restaurant there is more-intimate seating, interspersed with painted impressions of lush tropical foliage.
While the gunpowder dosa provides a point of intersection with the menus of our vegetarian Indian dosa houses like Temple Canteen and Sri Ganesh’s, it’s not the only dosa on Semma’s menu. The rarely seen kal dosa ($7) is a lighter, floppier, and unfilled rendition offered in lieu of rice, the perfect thing to use when eating many of Semma’s offerings with your fingers. It also appears as a side to what must be the menu’s most challenging dish, kudal varuval ($16).
“When my mother would go to into the town we lived near to buy goat, the butcher would throw in the intestines for free, and my mother would cook them this way,” says Kumar. Lounging on a banana leaf and littered with lightly fried curry leaves, the dish glistens with a gingery spice paste, a preparation often described on southern Indian menus at places like Kuttanadan, located in Queens, as “dry” but it really is far from it. A kal dosa is fanned on the edge of the plate, encouraging you to eat the slippery organ — which is wonderfully chewy and clean tasting, nothing like its anatomical usage — with your pinkies out.
I’ve been eating southern Indian dishes that flaunted their curry leaves for years, but could never quite put my finger on what they tasted like — an elusive quality that is shared with few other herbs and spices (fenugreek, among them). But when I tasted the whistle podu ($17), a cocktail a bartender shakes at the bar, it was as if an LED had flashed on over my head. The gin is infused with curry leaf, and I realized that the fresh herb is more about the smell than taste. It adds an extra measure of fragrant greenness, for lack of a better English word, to every dish the herb touches.
Hopscotching around the menu, which runs to three sections of around six dishes each arranged according to size, here are some of those I liked best: From the smaller-size section, the Mangalore huukkosu ($15) name checks a port city in Karnataka, a vegetarian arc of cauliflower fritters served with a tapered scoop of thick coconut chutney.
Mulaikattiya thaniyam — an even smaller dish fit for a drinking snack — is composed of sprouted mung beans, coconut, and smoked chiles. “It takes three days to sprout the mung beans,” Mazumdar says. “Even though there’s no such thing as salads in Indian food, this is the sort of thing one eats on a farm in southern India.”
Erral thoku ($19), from among the medium dishes, is a quartet of tiger prawns in a chorus line thickly coated with a spice paste highlighting curry leaves and fenugreek, rich enough that two apiece is plenty for anyone.
Goanese oxtail is a larger choice whose toasted masala and dark gravy makes it seem more like a northern dish, and indeed, if you transplanted it to a Jamaican restaurant, it would not be out of place; while valiya chemmeen moilee features a sizable lobster tail swimming in one of those far southern dishes awash in coconut milk and tinted with turmeric. It might remind you of a vastly improved version of the New York classic lobster thermidor.
I liked the Dindigul goat biryani ($36) associated with an inland city in Tamil Nadu, but its main characteristic was the short-grained sreeraga chamba rice and not any particularity of flavor for the entire dish — reminding us that biryani in its myriad geographical manifestations in South Asia is a dish very well represented here already, and better versions might be found elsewhere.
That said, perhaps even more so than places like Sona and Gupshup, and even Adda and Dhamaka, Semma is an Indian restaurant unique in the city, translating the commonplace local foodways of southern India into a fine dining idiom without losing its soul, and aggressively challenging New York’s long-standing ideas about the scope and depth of Indian cuisine.