There are some New York restaurants that stand the test of time: places that, no matter what trends storm the city—and then, inevitably, retreat—make excellent food, and stay true to their style regardless of what the times dictate.
Chennai Garden, the vegetarian Indian restaurant on Manhattan's Curry Hill, is one of those spots. For over a decade, it's been serving up southern Indian specialties like dosa, those huge, conical, paper-thin rice-flour crepes wrapped around savory fillings; vegetable curries in a variety of hues and styles; and flaky grilled breads. Though Lexington Avenue is lined with dozens of Indian options, Chennai Garden consistently sets itself apart with the freshness and intensity of flavor of its food. When eating the restaurant's rich dishes, you can tell that the spices the kitchen used were ground recently and toasted just right, and shreds of fresh cilantro and mint show up where other restaurants might not use the herbs at all.
Chennai Garden offers an expansive menu of appetizers, dosas, utthappam, or savory, spongy pancakes, vegetable curries and rice dishes, and when ordering, it's pretty much impossible to go wrong. But given that we reviewed the restaurant back in 2009, on this most recent trip, I chose some dishes we haven't written about on the site before.
Iddly ($6.45) are light rice- and lentil-flour cakes that arrive afloat in sambar, a tangy lentil broth studded with diced potatoes and zucchini and flavored with black mustard seeds that pop in your mouth. A sweet, hot chutney made with fresh coconut is served on the side.
If you like sourdough pancakes, you'll love mushroom utthappam ($8.95). It's basically a large pancake, the batter made with gram bean and rice flours, with sautéed mushrooms and cilantro cooked right into the top. Fluffy and stretchy, it, too, is accompanied by the aforementioned sambar and coconut chutney.
Chennai Garden offers over 20 varieties of vegetable curries. Navaratna koorma ($9.95) is a truly addictive mix of potatoes, carrots, onions, flat green beans, and tomatoes in a rich, buttery cream-based sauce. The vegetables are perfectly cooked, tender but not overdone, and are accented with just a touch of garlic and ginger.
Good Indian food tends to do well by the humble chickpea, and Chennai Garden is no exception. Its chana saag ($9.95, pictured at top) features the tender legumes and creamy fresh spinach in subtly spiced tomato gravy. It's wonderful spooned over the restaurant's fluffy, pea-studded basmati rice, or scooped up with any of its breads.
Southern Indian food is always a great option for vegetarians, and Chennai Garden's fare is a cut above its competitors.
129 East 27th Street, New York, NY 10016 (map) 212-689-1999