Anjappar opened its first location in Chennai, India, in 1945, specializing in food from the region of Tamil Nadu known as Chettinad. Today there are more than 30 outposts worldwide, including a pair in New Jersey, but somehow its newest, on Manhattan's Lexington Avenue, doesn't feel chain-like. A tin ceiling the color of rust helps, as do upholstered benches in swirly fabric and black-and-white paintings on the walls. Chettinad cooking uses meat in South Indian dishes, so if you've ever dreamed of stuffing a dosa with chicken or adding lamb to your uttapam and doing so in a sexy atmosphere, this might be your place.
Chettinad cooking has two overarching characteristics: much of it is fried, and much of it is heavily spiced. As such, gobi 65 ($8.95) offered an apt introduction. The cauliflower florets stayed firm and bone-white, despite being thickly battered and coated in freshly ground garam masala. Two condiments, hot sauce and ketchup, were served alongside, although the fried nuggets tasted best nude and unadulterated.
Our second starter, Chettinad pepper chicken ($11.95), might have been a main. Chunks of chicken breast were covered in pepper, topped with pepper, then sprinkled with more pepper and a few onions. Depending on your sensitivities, this is a dish you can feel before you taste, as a tickle in your nose or a sting in your eyes. It lets you know you're alive.
Mutton sukka varuval ($14.95), our actual main, offered a subtler heat, closer to the pungent side rather than the on-fire side of our unscientific spectrum. The goat, marinated in yogurt and spices like cinnamon and curry leaves, had a heat that pleasantly set up camp in the back of your throat. As with the pepper chicken, here too the spice mixture had permeated every fissure of the meat, so there was never a dull bite.
Our waiter recommended a traditional bread to go with our meal, as the goat doesn't come with bread or rice. The ropy, whole wheat layers of the parotta ($3.45) are buttered and fried. Just looking at the bread's hypnotic whorls calmed our mouths. You can, and should, order this bread topped with chicken, mutton, and egg, another traditional element of Chettinad cooking.
For our second entrée, we tried a vegetarian thali ($13.95). Thalis are quite possibly the world's most perfect meal, offering the opportunity to try a little of a lot. This take presented a sampling of Chettinad sweeties and savories, including rice, chappathi, curd, pappad, rasam (a soup made from tomatoes and lentils), sambar (a soup made from peas and lentils), achar (pickle), veggie sabji (stew), poriyal (shredded greens and coconut), and the brick red kootu (pounded lentils and spices). While the other components seemed fairly indistinguishable from those you'd find on a thali at any of Anjappar's Curry Hill neighbors, the kootu, hovering between a liquid and a solid, offered a pleasing burn.
Hopefully the arrival of Anjappar heralds a further separation of Indian food into regions. In recent years, Chinese restaurants in New York City have been replaced by Yunnan, Sichuan, and Fujian ones. So too might Indian restaurants diversify beyond North Indian, South Indian, and Kosher Vegetarian. Anjappar is a good step in that direction. With its romantic decor and intense seasonings, it's best for: a hot date.