At a newsstand in Jackson Heights several years ago I bought a magazine called Femina, the Indian equivalent of Family Circle. It was a special food issue, featuring two or three illustrated recipes from each of 20 Indian cities, and leafing through the tantalizing pages I was disappointed to see how few of the dishes were available in New York, where Mughal cooking has long held sway. So be grateful for the current Indian fad. While many of the new places aspire mainly to bistro prices and Frenchified food piled high on the plate, most manage to serve several worthwhile new dishes that expand the metropolitan repertoire of Indian eats.
Searching for a hip crowd, newly opened Surya ambiguously bills itself as “Modern Cuisine of Southern India.” In addition to a list of expensive and forgettable invented cocktails, the menu features several items attributed to Chettinad, a dry region 250 miles south of Madras in the southernmost state of Tamil Nadu. Chettinad is home to the Chettiyars, a group who originated long ago in the Andhra Pradesh state to the north, where Hindus and Muslims easily mix, and where the food is rich and fiery hot. The Chettiyars became adept at international commerce, especially banking, and are now dispersed all over the world, but their food has been recognized as one of South India’s major cuisines, and their restaurants are found in most large cities throughout the country. Mention Chettinad and Indians will vigorously fan their mouths with their hands.
Surya’s greatest Chettinad triumph is nandu varuval ($9), an appetizer of soft-shell crab in a dark sweet sauce jumping with sharp flavors. Koli Chettinad ($14) is nearly as good: a couple of pieces of chicken, butchered bistro-style with most of the bones removed, and dropped in a delicious thick sauce boasting plenty of ginger, tamarind, and coconut milk and a pleasant chile burn. Indeed, one of Surya’s most appealing aspects is its willingness to wield the chile pepper. A similar sauce appears under (the gravies never seem to get on top of the food) surra putto ($16). This unusual dish consists of steamed and flaked shark tossed with potatoes, curry leaf, and cumin seed and formed into a moist gray cylinder that makes it look like a can of cat food; it is delicious nonetheless.
The Chettiyars are one of the few South Indian groups that eat meat. Surya counterbalances their presence on the menu with a selection of distinguished vegetarian dishes—not including their pallid and understuffed rendition of masala dosai ($11), South India’s fermented-rice-and-lentil crepe. Instead order iddly ($9), three larger-than-usual spongy dumplings accompanied by three brilliant sauces: creamy orange tamarind, chunky coconut and black mustard seed, and an intensely green and flavorful mint. Good also is sundal ($7), a salad crammed with sprouted mung beans, squiggles of fried gram-flour noodles, and miniature black chickpeas, seasoned with fresh curry leaves, cilantro, and whole cumin seeds. It’s been different each time I’ve had it. Request mint chutney to moisten what might otherwise taste too much like bunny food.
Probably the best dish on the menu, though, is vendakai mandi ($12), okra al dente log-piled in a dressing the menu rather grandiosely describes as “concasse of tomato, onion, garlic, and kokum.” Only an expert would be able to certify the presence of kokum, an obscure Indian fruit that is difficult to acquire here. Be it hokum or kokum, however, the sauce is deliriously good.