Planning a trip to India years ago, I set my sights on the south of the country (Kerala and Tamil Nadhu). Why? To eat. I’d heard that the southern food was really spicy and really good, and most of it lived up to that billing. It’s a land of tamarind, coconuts, mangos (eaten young and sour as well as ripe and sweet), bananas, fresh-caught fish, of local-grown spices (particularly Kerala’s fragrant, seductive cardamom), and of numerous varieties of hot peppers. The food can be simple and bland to the point of asceticism or overwhelmingly rich and complex. Just as the temples of Madras are covered with hundreds of brightly painted sculptures of the Hindu gods while the streets below them teem with crowds of mortals, some of the curries I ate were thronged with innumerable spices and condiments that formed unexpected harmonies.
India is just barely one country cobbled together by the British Empire: It’s more diverse than Europe, with dozens of languages, hundreds of local dialects and regional subcultures, some 2000 ethnic groups, and two main sub-races, the Aryans of the north (descended from Euro-Asian invaders who arrived millennia ago) and the original, darker-skinned Dravidians, whom the Aryan invaders pushed to the south. That’s the reason I’ve bemoaned the state of Indian restaurants in California since my return — we get lots of North Indian food but almost nothing from South India’s distinctive cuisines. In all those cookie-cutter Punjabi menus (apparently modeled on the successful international chain Gaylord’s), only the inevitable vindaloo (from Goa) is the token representative of the vast land mass south of New Delhi.
But now there’s a new option to explore South India. Bombay in Hillcrest was the start of an empire of North Indian restaurants, expanding to Monsoon and Masala in the Gaslamp. Recently, the flagship moved across the street (to the former Corvette Diner space), and in its former digs, the Monsoon Group has opened Banana Leaf South Indian Restaurant. The room is handsome — wood tables and wood waffle-backed chairs, red banquettes, colored glass lanterns and wall-panels, but the lighting during dinner is too dim for full appreciation of the decor (or menu-reading).
Bamboo Leaf’s menu includes the basic staple dishes of the south, plus an abridged selection of curries, each from a different subregion. All the appetizers are purely southern, too (don’t look for samosas or pakora). The two best dishes of our meal were a pair of soups with a strong southern accent. Rasam is a tangy, spicy broth seasoned with tamarind, whole serrano chilis afloat along with diced vegetables, tiny soft lentils, and black mustard seeds. The spicing was a perfect medium-hot (plus there are those serranos to chomp on if you want to ramp it up). Even better was a rich, turmeric-gold Keralese coconut soup with a tenderly grainy texture. Salty, with a pleasant edge of sourness, the broth included bits of onion, scallions, and tomatoes. The flavors were almost complex enough for an entire dinner.
Chilli bhaji are appetizer versions of Indian chiles rellenos — smaller but hotter chilis (probably plump jalapeños) deep-fried in batter and stuffed with mashed potatoes. If you eat the half with the seeds and stem, you’ll be swallowing fire. (When sharing an order, better cut the chilies vertically.) Aloo bonda is likable, with more mashed potatoes, this time fried in a lentil-flour batter and served, if I remember correctly, with “the chef’s special chutney,” a rich, thin brown sauce — basically a sambar (lentil gravy) — with whole raw serranos afloat. (We also ordered a chutney assortment, so forgive the mild confusion about which chutney came with what.)
I didn’t order either variation of the vada, lentil-flour dumplings, because they’re always heavy and I just don’t like them; I did order the idli, rice dumplings in tomato broth (as served here), but the kitchen was out that evening. Idli are sort of breakfast food, anyway. A mango salad was a waste of six bucks — an ordinary small green salad with a few mango slices, BFD.
Dosas (plate-size thin crêpes) and utthappam (thick, lacy, rice-flour pancakes with gooey centers) are southern staples. In South Asia, from Sri Lanka to Nepal, silverware (beyond spoons) is pretty much confined to fancier restaurants with a significant percentage of foreigners among their clientele. Otherwise, the norm is eating with your right hand (this turns out to be pleasant and sensual, once you’ve sat on your left hand long enough to learn not to use it), and most restaurants have sinks right in the dining room for diners to wash up before and after meals. So, these crêpes and pancakes, when served “plain,” often serve the same function as injera does in Ethiopian meals or tortillas in Mexican cuisine — as wraps to scoop up wetter foods. However, they’re also frequently topped or stuffed with simple garnishes, to eat as self-contained vegetarian starters or main dishes. I wonder, next time, if I ignore the silverware and eat with my right hand, whether the staff will see that I’d spent time in India and might be seasoned enough in the cuisine to merit genuinely spicy cooking when I ask for it?
There are a zillion recipes for dosas and utthappam — regional recipes, tribal recipes, your grandma’s, my grandma’s, etc. In Madras (Chennai), dosas often combine rice flour with lentil flour for a more nutritive but heavier rendition. At Banana Leaf, the chef goes for the most refined version, with rice flour only. Foolish Yankee carnivore, I succumbed to the lure of a weighty minced-chicken stuffing. It would be fine in another context but was ruinous to the delicacy of the crêpe. Similarly, with the utthappam, I chose the “chef’s special” with a heavy, sweet topping of raisins, cashews, and minced veggies.
My mistake — shun the fancy dosas, go for the plainer ones! Next time, I’ll choose the masala dosa (potatoes and sambar lentil gravy) or the Mysore dosa (with shredded beets and spinach, plus onion chutney) and for utthappam, the masala version (onions, tomatoes, peppers) or the jalapeño-and-onion version, if the topping is cooked, not raw. Or like a real Keralan, I might just get a plain utthappam and use it to sop up a curry.
If you’re ordering these wraps in simple versions, consider adding the chef’s plate of chutneys (tomato, coconut, tamarind) to garnish them. Lovers of fierce flavors may want to try an order of achar, hot-and-sour green mango and lime pickle, addictive if you develop a taste for it.
The menu offers a half-dozen curries from various southern regions, ranging from Hyderabad (in the state of Andhra Pradesh, just barely in the southern half, with a cuisine more similar to Punjabi than other southern states) on through Bangalore, Chettinad (a region in the state of Tamil Nadu), Goa, and Kerala. Protein choices include tofu, fish, shrimp, lamb, veggies, or the “mock duck” beloved of vegans who miss meat.
Our best choice was the Kerala curry with coconut water, chilies, ginger, and unspecified “spices.” Kerala’s “signature” dish is an incendiary red fish curry, meen mulligattath. At the seaside in Ernakulam are a line of awesome onshore fishing rigs, soaring hand-cranked cranes with huge nets attached to their ends, set on the beach, each manned by about 20 loinclothed men who dip the nets into the water and, a few minutes later, crank them back up filled with wriggling seafood. (A quick boat ride across the water from grungy “Erna” is the enchanting ancient spice-port of Cochin, with its small whitewashed buildings where huge heaps and sacks of cardamom seeds perfume the air near the harbor.) So I chose fish as the protein for the Keralese curry, not caring which species. Happily, it proved a steaky fish, probably sea bass thickly sliced into a smooth pinkish curry, as aromatic with cardamom as I’d hoped, the fish nicely cooked. The spicing was medium, despite our table’s universal request for spicy dishes to be served really hot. (Next night, the leftovers had escalated to semi-hot.) It wasn’t Kerala’s famed fish curry (I think this one is called meen molee), but it was tasty.
It’s hard to believe that, in a veteran chain like the Monsoon Group, the kitchen of its latest offshoot would be thrown off its stride by an order for a mere three curries simultaneously — but both our other curries were disappointing due to overcooking. Hyderabi curry (almonds, mint, yogurt, masala) is a natural for lamb, but the meat slices were dried out and the sauce somewhat congealed. The Chettinad curry (tamarind, curry leaves, garlic, and ginger) was overthickened, too, with shriveled shrimp. Neither was remotely spicy. The default rice (served in lieu of the more exotic one we ordered) was Pullao (basmati, subtly amended with finely diced vegetables and gentle masala spices), and it was tender and buttery.
The service we encountered was sweet but discombobulated: lots of servers (three, plus a busboy) periodically fluttered around us. I think our original waitress could have handled it better without all the help. They were young, pleasant, attractive, but there seemed to be little communication — we had to repeat several requests more than once. Wine and beer arrived quickly, but three tablemates’ booze-free cocktails, ordered early, while we were still working on our food order, required a reminder and didn’t arrive until just before the appetizers. An order for an exotic rice dish with tamarind and peanuts didn’t show up until the end of the meal, right before the table was cleared. (It was removed from our bill without our asking. However, the buser didn’t box it up for take-home, so I barely got to taste it.) And you already know that our request for “spicy” went nowhere, unless you count the occasional raw whole chilies in chutneys. (Young male Texans of my acquaintance chomp raw chilies to prove their machismo. I am none of the above and believe hot peppers should generally be chopped up and cooked into something that will welcome and absorb them into a company of flavors.)
Banana Leaf has one of the most alluring dessert menus of local Indian restaurants. I liked the nutmeg-sprinkled pistachio kulfi (ice milk), with its classic fudgy texture, but my tablemates didn’t (guess it’s a developed taste). The rosewater kulfi had a smoother texture and floral aroma and vanished lickety-split. Faloodi is a dish of Medieval Persian origins, a sort of noodle-rosewater sorbet. Here, it’s supposedly made with noodles, milk, rosewater syrup, and basil seeds, but where were the noodles? Were they puréed into the thick, fragrant sorbet? And carrot halwa (pudding) was a coarse mash that would make a great side dish for Bubbie’s pot roast, rather than dessert. Among the several sweets we didn’t order is a whipped-cream coconut mousse, which I don’t believe you’re likely to encounter anywhere in India except, perhaps, at luxury hotels for foreigners.
Given the unexpected cooking and service glitches, I suspect that Bamboo Leaf hasn’t quite matured. I look forward to trying it again a little further down the road. For one thing, they’ve got an intriguing curry from Goa: its contents are coconut milk, tamarind, cumin, and red chilis. “Vindaloo” was the culinary response of Goan cooks to the Portuguese colonists’ introduction of vinegar, but tamarind fruit is the local sour ingredient of South India. Could this be a pre-Portuguese version of vindaloo? (And would they make it as spicy as an authentic vindaloo if you begged?)
If this report intrigues you, there are two other restaurants serving South Indian food locally that I know of — neither sporting anything like Banana Leaf’s relatively upscale decor. Frequented mainly by local Tamil families, Madras Café on Black Mountain Road serves an all-vegetarian menu emphasizing dosas, utthappam, idli, etc. As a family place, they don’t make their food spicy, but you’ll get several incendiary table sauces if you ask for them. And at the base of Horton Plaza, near the main garage entrance, is Gourmet India, specializing in the food of Mumbai but lightly and adeptly covering all regions, including a very tasty utthappam.
Good News Food Gossip: Foodies living south of I-8 have a couple of causes to rejoice. Carl Schroeder, chef-owner of Market, is opening a city branch, taking over the Banker’s Hill space vacated by Modus — tentatively naming it Banker’s Hill. And at the Loewe’s Coronado Bay Resort on the Silver Strand, famed French chef Marc Ehrler has taken over the food operations, hiring his old colleague Patrick Ponsaty (of BernardO’s and El Bizcocho) to take charge of cooking at the beautiful Mistral. That sounds like a perfect fit. Look to April or so for both dreams to come true.
Bad News Gossip: The wonderful fusion restaurant Jai, amidst the tall trees on the UCSD campus, is an endangered species and may soon close. If you want to taste the best soft-shell tempura crab ever, and the most exquisite marinated black cod, run there now. Maybe you can save it!
Banana Leaf South Indian Restaurant
- 3 stars
- (Good to Very Good)
3975 Fifth Avenue, Hillcrest, 619-298-8888, bananaleafsd.com.
HOURS: Monday–Sunday, 11:00 a.m.–2:30 p.m. lunch; 5:00–9:00 p.m. dinner.
PRICES: Appetizers and soups, $5.95; dosas (crêpes) and utthappam (pancakes), $6.95–$9.95; curries, $9–$13; rice, $2.95–$4.95; breads, $2.95; chutneys, $2.95–$4.95; desserts, $3.50–$6.95.
CUISINE AND BEVERAGES: Food from South India, including choice of vegetarian or “non-veg” curry garnishes. Wide selection of Indian beers (including Kingfisher on tap), a few wines, full bar with creative tropical cocktails, including nonalcoholic variations, plus Indian beverages.
PICK HITS: Coconut soup, rasam soup, chili bhajia, dosas, and utthappam (vegetarian versions), Kerala curry with fish, rosewater kulfi ice milk. Good bet: Goa curry with lamb or chicken.
NEED TO KNOW: Validated parking in adjacent garage. Anglos ordering “hot” will likely receive low-medium spicing. Everything on menu vegetarian or vegan, with “non-veg” options available.