Sometimes it seems like the restaurateurs of Jersey City’s India Square are playing an elaborate game of musical chairs. The 30 or so restaurant storefronts on the two-block strip shutter and then reopen with different names, but often presenting similar menus of dosas or biryanis. Occasionally a newcomer appears with a different culinary approach, and Masala Cafe is such a place.
It was spawned last October by a restaurant with a similar name in downtown Newark devoted to South Indian food, but with lots of northern, Indo-Chinese, and citified street eats thrown into the mix, making for a menu with something for everyone. But many of the dining establishments in Jersey City already cover those bases; clearly something different was needed. So, owner and chef P. Chelladurai decided to focus more closely on the cuisine of Chennai, a city in the Tamil Nadu state on India’s southeast coast. Formerly known as Madras, the city was historically famous for its textile industry. Chelladurai grew up in Periyapalayam, a town on the Arani river northwest of the city.
Through one of my guests who served as translator, the chef told us one evening in Tamil, “I was in IT before, and thought it would be fun to open a restaurant. I looked around and realized there was no authentic place devoted exclusively to the cooking of Madras.” He also recommended several dishes, and I managed to try most of them on three visits. The restaurant occupies a deep space culminating in a kitchen, with two parallel dining rooms, one decorated with colorful plates, the other with supergraphic photo images of spices.
The restaurant labels itself Chettinad, referring to one of Tamil Nadu’s cultural groups, the Chettiars, who are responsible for one of the state’s dominant cuisines. Its recipes are famous for their subtlety and complex ground-spice aromas, with flavors said to mirror the dry climate. Appetizers are a strong point on Masala Cafe’s menu, though most could also function as main courses when rice is ordered.
Kozhi milagu varuval ($13.99) is a classic: bone-in chicken parts coated with a dark-beige gravy, with lots of ginger and black pepper — a spice native to India that predated the appearance of chiles from South America in the late 15th century. In fact, the cuisine’s oldest recipes can be often be identified through their use of black pepper rather than chiles. The dish arrives strewn with cilantro and raw purple onions, and is best eaten with parotta, a flaky round flatbread that falls apart in layers. “It’s buttery like a croissant, only flakier,” a friend noted one afternoon.
Another remarkable appetizer, and potentially great brunch dish, is egg murtaba ($10.99). It consists of a whole-wheat crust folded over a spicy egg filling, stacked on the plate like shirts in a drawer, and accompanied by an onion raita and a masala gravy. Dip the slices in either and enjoy. For a slight additional charge, you can have your murtaba stuffed with chicken or mutton, but I prefer the mellowing effect of eggs. The recipe apparently originated in the Middle East, and was carried by the tides of Islam all the way to Singapore and Malaysia, stopping in far southern India along the way for the country’s own unique spin.
Surprises linger around every corner on Masala Cafe’s menu, with lots of dishes that were unfamiliar to me. Like Oaxacan cuisine, in which moles function as main courses, whether you toss in meat or not, Chettinad cuisine has stand-alone sauces fit for a meal. “Spicy poondu kuzhambu” ($11.99) is one: a garlicky and wonderfully oily tomato sauce that might be mistaken for something you ate in Sicily, except for its panoply of flavors, including lots and lots of kari — the tiny, shiny, dark green, astringent herb also known as curry leaf. Poured over basmati rice, the thick sauce makes a great vegetarian repast.
But the rice you get at the cafe is not always the long and crooked-grained basmati. Thalappakatti chicken biryani ($14.99) uses a distinctive short-grain rice sometimes found in biryanis of southern India. This particular preparation name-checks a hotel restaurant in the city of Dindigul, Tamil Nadu, where in the late 1950s the recipe was invented and achieved regional fame. Served with raita and a tomato-based sauce, and topped with a boiled egg, the biryani is distinctive, even among this biryani-heavy strip of Indian restaurants. Even now I can remember its subtle flavors and fragrance, without being quite able to describe them, other than providing a video to attest to its complexity.
The food at Masala Cafe is often spicy, but you can bring your own beer from a bodega around the corner on Tonnelle Avenue. Somehow, beer stanches the burn in a way even the creamy rosewater lassi ($4.50) can’t.