It’s something of a real estate miracle that the Indian neighborhood known as Curry Hill—which runs along Lexington Avenue from 26th to 30th streets—is still intact, and even thriving. Early on, the west side of the street established itself as a major purveyor of dosas and other South Indian vegetarian provender, on par with Jersey City and Queens. Add to the mix a longstanding Pakistani presence and, more recently, a handful of places that specialize in either Indo-Chinese or flatbread-based fast food.
But now, non-vegetarian regional South Indian fare is surfacing like a submarine—and let me tell you: It makes a sweet addition to Curry Hill. The latest example is Coconut Grove, which may remind you of a certain picturesque neighborhood in Miami. In this case, however, the moniker signifies the romantic beachscapes of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, the coastal Indian states from which the restaurant’s menu principally derives. The restaurant is long and narrow, with a continuous banquette trailing along one wall, beneath colorful geometric wallpaper. The service, alas, can be painfully slow.
Much of the food is worth the wait. Take the chicken pepper roast ($9.95), a splendid heap of irregular poultry tidbits thickly coated with black mustard seeds, coconut shreds, and crushed black peppercorns. Recipes such as this are ancient: They date from before the Portuguese introduced chilies to the subcontinent, sometime in the late 16th century. Indeed, the Sanskrit term for black pepper is “kari”—a word that evolved in succeeding centuries into the colonial catch-all expression for spice combinations: “curry.”
Andhra chicken curry ($9.95) name-checks its state of origin, and represents one of the few southern curries that incorporates tomatoes. The cashew paste used as a thickening agent is a barely discernible presence, but adds a luxuriant richness. One of the most interesting meat-bearing dishes is nilgiri lamb kurma ($11.95). Named after a bluish mountain range that spans the border of Kerala and Tamil Nadu, the curry deposits tender sheep swatches in a dark gravy laced with mint and cilantro—a killer combo of flavorings ramped up with plenty of hot chilies, but only if you beg your waiter for them. (Getting the cooks to make your order hot enough is a major challenge at Coconut Grove.)
Since the restaurant represents the cuisine of coastal regions, seafood is a major presence. Most remarkable is the fish moilee ($12.95), an oily braise of kingfish in a sweet, dark coconut sauce. Even sweeter is the Malabar shrimp curry ($13.95), a generous collection of preened shrimp in a sauce flavored with curry leaves—a dark green leaf that, though modest in size, displays a lingering pungency. It’s a taste you’ll encounter again and again in southern cooking. Finally, among the apps, find crabcakes ($6.95), a pair of patties, delicately spiced, with enough crabmeat to make you sit up and exclaim what a great deal they are. The cakes benefit from a spicing scheme far removed from Old Bay Seasoning.
Unavoidably, the menu features a section of northern Mughal vegetarian dishes—such familiar combinations as potatoes and cauliflower (alu gobi) and spinach with homemade cheese (palak paneer). The only reason to get them here is because they’re made to order, and hence fresher-tasting than they are at most other places. More interesting are a series of South Indian vegetarian dishes rarely seen elsewhere, including gutti venkaya ($8.95), a recipe associated with the high-tech city of Hyderabad in Andhra Pradesh. Delicate Asian eggplants swim in a puréed peanut sauce like purple-skinned bathing beauties, and a faint whiff of tamarind hangs over the pool. Another southern vegetarian delight is avial, in which mixed vegetables are immersed in lavish quantities of coconut milk and yogurt, two ingredients that go surprisingly well together. Avial has its origins in India’s southernmost state of Kerala, and is often served on a banana leaf as part of a festival meal known as Sadya.
The menu is so multifarious that it takes several visits to identify your favorite dishes. Near the bottom, the menu lists Sri Lankan specialties, though not identified as such. (Are the owners, who are Sri Lankan, under deep cover?) One of these is the coyly named Ceylon paratha ($3.95), a buttery, multi-layered flatbread that’s like a flattened croissant. Though of similar starchy composition, the whole-wheat lacha paratha is not nearly as impressive. Coconut Grove also offers a series of Sri Lankan “kotthu parottas” ($9.95–$12.95), deploying an alternate spelling of “paratha.” This family of dishes entails scrambling eggs with torn-up flatbreads, a dead ringer for Mexican chilaquiles. If the teardrop-shaped island had a brunch tradition, this would be its crux. Anyone for a tequila-laced lassi sunrise?