Ever seen eggs as the center of attention anywhere but a diner?
Well, they’re also the star at Chennai Flavors, which debuted recently in Jersey City just north of Journal Square. Although you might have previously encountered a lonely boiled egg plunged in chicken curry at a Pakistani or Punjabi spot, ova are everywhere at this South Indian café. From the menu section Egg Classic, check out podimas ($4.99), a cilantro-laced yellow scramble modified with a mild masala. Scrumptious and comforting. Elsewhere on the menu, find kottu paratha, a toss of shredded flatbreads and fried egg tidbits—it’s the South Asian answer to Mexican chilaquiles. There’s a rubbery omelet, too, flat as a 100-rupee banknote. Chennai Flavors even plasters a fried egg on its logo, flames shooting out the top.
The restaurant sits on a three-block stretch of Newark Avenue that slopes alarmingly toward the Meadowlands, making a visit feel like an Alpine hike. Sometimes known as Little India, this street hosts groceries, paan parlors, sari stores, sweet shops, gold-dowry jewelers, and 20 restaurants. Chennai Flavors—named after the city once called Madras—is typical of the regional South Indian restaurants that have been popping up recently. A few months ago, I reviewed Deccan Spice just up the block, which offers the cuisine of Hyderabad, a city 300 miles from Chennai.
Little India’s restaurants throng with shoppers on weekend afternoons, but are half-empty other times, so even a party of two can command a deluxe upholstered booth in one of Chennai Flavors’ tandem dining rooms, both filled with red lacquered furniture and refreshingly underdecorated. Nearly everything on the menu is cooked to order, so be prepared to wait. Video screens showing Bollywood movies will help distract you from hunger. The menu doesn’t so much reflect the unique regional dishes of Chennai as the entire culinary range one might see at a restaurant there. This welter includes dosas and uttapams, mutton and chicken curries, smoky tandoori roasts, seafood swimming in coconut milk, a smattering of Indo-Chinese standards, and the Mughal vegetarian fare usually associated with northern India.
Although a pair of places down the block specialize in dosas—the crepes made from fermented rice-and-lentil batter—and offer dozens of different ones, Chennai Flavors produces a “greatest hits” selection. All are of impressive dimensions, including the Mysore masala dosa ($5.95), which hides a fiery spice rub on the inside of the crunchy pancake. The mild potato filling serves as something of an antidote. If you’re tired of regular dosas, dig into a rava dosa: Made from cream of wheat, the wrapper develops a lacy texture. There are dosas to avoid, too, including a pizza dosa made with bottled marinara and pre-grated supermarket mozzarella to lure kids who would normally reject the Indian food their parents love.
While Deccan Spice specializes in wonderful biryanis, those at Chennai Flavor are lackluster. But anything featuring mutton on the menu is fab (though the bill of fare seems to use “goat” and “mutton” interchangeably). Described as a dry curry, mutton varuval ($12.99) is actually damp—bone-in pieces of meat in a dark, thick sauce swaddled in caramelized onions. Dry? It simply lacks the surfeit of meal-extending gravy found in most curries. Another Chennai corker, suggesting the bounty of the warm South Asian Sea, is crab masala ($13.99). The bright, turmeric-driven gravy—flavored with curry leaves, black mustard seeds, and coconut milk—is crustacean killer with no filler. Outside Maryland, you’ve probably never eaten so much crab in a single sitting.
Hopscotching around the menu, I can recommend coconut uttapam, a spongy flatbread enfolding shards of coconut meat. Also dig Chettinad pepper chicken, a dish associated with a long-forgotten ethnic group called the Chettinars, but now secret code among Indian diners for blow-the-top-of-your-head-off spiciness. Other chicken dishes such as butter chicken and tikka masala are made with boneless breast meat, so skip ’em.
If you’re in a poultry mood, why not eat more eggs? Chennai egg masala ($6.99) deposits the hard-boiled article in a creamy beige sauce with enough garlic to get you booted off OkCupid. But how to proceed, since you can’t put a whole egg in your mouth all at once? Pulverize it, so that each fragment becomes thickly coated with sauce, then pick up bites with a folded flatbread, say garlic naan ($4.95), to further ramp up the pungent flavor. And then lean back and digest as the Bollywood actors kick energetically across the TV screen.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on January 16, 2013