My favourite New-York-based food writer is Robert Sietsema. He currently writes for Eater, and while he excels at the cheap eats and ethnic beat, he has also done very fine reviews of your typical buzzy new openings. Lucky Peach recently wrote of him:
In the future, when food is the only thing that anyone cares or talks about—when the last guitar has been pawned for sashimi and paintbrushes are only used for applying egg wash to pastries—there will be whispers in the darkest corners, in the places where the idea of the counterculture hasn’t been trumped out of existence by gout and gluttony. Those whispers will be of a man called ROBERT SIETSEMA: a hero of the people who rode the rails and reported on the city like it was a living breathing thing, who told stories about food that was of the people, not the other way around. Who was intrepid when others were tepid; whose Metrocard expenses must have rivaled other critics’ Chablis costs.
It is Sietsema who has ultimately been my inspiration for finding the fun and delicious through explorations of the small, cramped, and possibly far-flung restaurants of this city. So, I took special note when he wrote that, “when it comes to presenting obscure regional specialties restricted to small geographic areas of South India, Chutneys is without peer. And currently, there’s no better dining adventure in (or out) of the five boroughs.” Thus, it would be a when, not if, excursion, to Chutneys, especially as I have a pescatarian friend who would be all over being my date for a meatless feast (as South Indian ones always are).
Feast as if it was our last night on earth, we did. Perhaps partly because we decided to make the journey to Jersey City on a bone-chilling cold night. Getting to Jersey City only requires a $5 and change return fare on the PATH train, but let me tell you, once you’re out of the safety of tight streets and tall buildings, the temperature drops considerably and the wind bites more ferociously as you walk the streets looking for the Little India. Paying ill-attention to your Google Maps and taking a wrong turn to increase your walk by nearly 15 minutes probably makes things worse, too.
What many, many delights would await us once we entered the harsh lighting and blasting warmth of Chutneys. Nearly empty at 8 pm (it filled to its almost large capacity when we left two hours later), Chutneys presented a swath of large empty booths for us to choose from. We quickly took one to being the winter process of removing our coats, wiping our noses, and settling in while our extremities defrosted. We let Sietsema be our guide and went almost exclusively with his recommendations. As it was a large menu, we had nothing to lose with going along with someone we trusted. We completely overordered, eating somewhere between one-third and one-half of what arrived. But when things are cheap, one of us likes leftovers, and the cold air has you cursing your journey to Jersey, you party hard.
The server only asked us if that was all when we gave our order, never flinching to suggest we might have ordered too much or too less: Gobi 65, Chettinad idli, Mount Road parotta with salna, pongal, and a Nilgiri vegetable korma.
My friend rightly described the Gobi 65 (picture on Instagram), slightly spicy battered and fried cauliflower, as what movie theaters should be selling instead of popcorn. Maybe they do in South India? The dish was hot, crispy, and greaseless nuggets of the white brassica that came with mint and tamarind chutneys. Like with popcorn, it was hard to stop eating them. Your brain registered that you were eating something deep-fried and battered, but your stomach was in complete denial.
So much so that it also didn’t register the crazy chunks of deep-fried (again, greaseless) idli that were slathered in something called a Chettinad gravy (accompanied by the regular South Indian trio of sambar, coconut chutney, and tomato chutney). Think of a regular snow-white, steamed idli. Then think about cutting it into three or four fingers. Let someone with experience then deep fry them to golden perfection. That’s the base of this dish. Gravy is the wrong translation for a North American audience (even an Italian American one), as what was atop those fried idli fingers was thick and chunky with onions and whole chilies, almost dry in that it was not dripping or slipping off as you either dunked a finger in sambar and/or spooned on a little chutney. Again, brain recognizes that you’re eating chunks of deep-fried starch, but your taste buds and stomach are having too much fun to care right now.
The parotta was only slight relief from the fryer, as this beautifully coiled and flaky bread did not touch a heat source without some good fatty lubrication. Unlike most bread orders at Indian restaurants, this parotta was more like an entrée as it came with a vegetable salna, a bowl of curry for dipping. Next time ordering parotta on its own would suffice, but the salna was delicious, and it had a nice degree of heat to it.
This was my dish of the night, mostly because the flavour and texture was so unexpected. I think after my first forkful, i said, “This is the most delicious mush I have ever had.” A mixture of rice, lentils, spices, and ghee, pongal is next level starch. You do not want to substitute this for rice and cover it with curry. It has far too much flavour from the ghee and the spices. The texture isn’t really mushy in the sense that it’s water-logged. It’s more like rice that has been overcooked to the point where it becomes creamy. It can hold that log shape not because it has sat in a mold, but because there’s a pliability (like dough?). My dream would be to have a giant bowl of pongal for breakfast, with a fried egg on top. I fantasize about breaking the yolk then mixing it into a rich ghee-y glory and eating it all with a tiny spoon to extend my pleasure.
Did you ever take a Religious Studies course in university and learn about Jains? You know, the ones who are so devoutly vegetarian that they do not eat bugs? This korma was a “homestyle curry” in Chutneys’ Jain section. Sietsema assured us that the mint sauce didn’t taste like toothpaste. Truth. It was one of the most interesting Indian dishes I’ve ever had. I wouldn’t say fresh, but there was a herbaceous note that often isn’t tasted with ghee-laden sauces. It was excellent. And also carried some unexpected heat. This came with a very unnecessary bowl of steamed basmati rice.
We ate until we burst (at least I did), and I’d love to know what the servers thought of the two white girls who ordered enough for a small family. We both said it was some of the best, if not the best, Indian food we’ve had in New York. I find that time and again I go for Indian food and all the dishes taste the same or there’s a lack of complexity. Not here. There’s many new food adventures to be found within this menu, and I hope to come back and experience them. Until then, I will be burning up Google trying to find an easy pongal recipe. Because, hey, now I can easily get ghee at Trader Joe’s!