106 Lexington Avenue, New York, NY 10016 (b/n 27th and 28th Streets; map); 212-684-6842; kokumny.com
Setting: A modern, if slightly chintzy room that fills up with Indian diners at peak hours
Service: Solicitous and helpful
Compare To: Chote Nawab, Malai Marke
Must-Haves: Kumily chicken fry, lemon rice, pulissery, allepy meen cury
Cost: Appetizers $5 to $12, mains $12 to $20
Recommendation: Recommended with reservations. An eye-opening offering of South Indian cooking that's sometimes delicious, sometimes just alright.
If you have even a passing interest in Indian food, there's a good chance you've eaten at one of Shiva Natarajan's restaurants. The soft-spoken chef/restaurateur has built a sizable New York empire—his extant restaurants count Chola, Dhaba, Bhojan, Chote Nawab, and Malai Marke—and his kitchens have cooked up some of the city's most unique South Asian food. If last week's investigations into New York's regional Indian cooking got you hungry, take note of how many Natarajan restaurants were mentioned.
His newest venture is Kokum, which replaces Singapura, his not-too-successful foray into Southeast Asian cuisine. This restaurant hews closer to home; Natarajan was born in Chennai, the capital of the southern state of Tamil Nadu, and the food at Kokum represents a "culinary tour through the southern coast of India," inspired, among others, by the cuisines of Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, and—especially rare in New York—seafood-heavy Kerala. New York's Indian cuisine still skews towards the rich (heavy in unskilled hands) cooking of the country's northern regions, which makes the purely southern Kokum one of Manhattan's most distinctive Indian restaurants. A meal there is a journey well worth taking, even if the food doesn't always succeed.
With so many cuisines feeding into the kitchen, it's difficult to make generalizations about the food. But here goes: the cooking at Kokum is clean, light on the oil and butter, full of interesting seafood and vegetable preparations, and generally subtle on spicy heat. At their best, dishes extoll a singular ingredient: pungent and peppery curry leaf or creamy coconut or a kick of dried chili backed by vegetal flavors.
Other times, a light hand with the spicing leads to food that's somewhat bland. The kitchen is still uneven—dishes excellent one night are just okay on another—but chances are you'll get some full-flavored plates alongside milder ones to balance them out, which works out just fine if you order family-style.
The cream of the crop from my visits: Kumily Chicken Fry ($10), tender chunks of chicken blasted with a crust of spices, green chilies, and curry leaves, cooked until just crisp—peppery, genuinely hot, and not a shade overcooked. Allepy Meen Curry ($19) features red snapper gently simmered in a thick, brilliantly tangy sauce of unripe mango, a refreshing change-up from overcooked fish curries elsewhere.
More winners: Moru Pulissery ($13) is a thin curry of buttermilk with coconut, soft white pumpkin, and curry leaf, a little tangy with the leaf's telltale pungency, but as comforting as a bowl of mac and cheese. I couldn't help but spoon it over Lemon Rice ($8), which adds the crunch of peanuts to the thrum of fried mustard seeds and long grain rice soaked with lemon (though this was one dish that ran full-throttle on one meal and only half-speed, still tasty if not arresting, during another).
The pulissery would also be nice scooped up with a side of Appam ($6), dome-shaped pancakes made from a batter of fermented rice and coconut milk, which are spongy in the center and lacy-crisp at the edge, sweeter and less tangy than hoppers, their Sri Lankan cousins. Tender Idiappam ($11), steamed nests of noodles to be eaten by hand with a quartet of dipping sauces, also make a worthy starchy side. (Sri Lankans would call these string hoppers, though the idiappam at Kokum have a less nutty taste.)
Kokum serves several varieties of thoran, a hash of sorts popular in Kerala made with finely chopped vegetables stir fried with grated coconut, mustard seed, and other spices. Thorans are time-consuming to prepare and rare in New York's Indian restaurants—try dicing a couple pounds of long beans into quarter-inch nubs and you'll see why—so it's worth exploring how Kokum does theirs. The Red Pumpkin Thoran ($13) is part savory, with the return of mustard seed and curry leaf, and part sweet, with the squash slightly caramelized by jaggery, raw cane sugar. Anna Okra Fry ($13), which is thoran-ish but with lentils replacing fried mustard seeds, is less memorable.
Another uncommon vegetable preparation is Theeyal ($12), a mix of sweet potato and unripe banana in a thick sauce of coconut and spices like coriander. The coconut could be richer and sweeter, and the spices more pronounced, but the soft-starchy sweet potatoes and the fibrous, almost crunchy banana, make for an interesting contrast of textures and a substantial vegetable dish.
There are some flat-out misses, like a noncommittal goat curry ($19) that didn't taste like much at all, or Crab Ullarthu, which for $20 gives you an immense portion of shelled crab meat, but it lacks the sweetness or ocean freshness needed to stand up to a spicy coating of garlic and coriander. Medhu Vadal ($6), savory lentil doughnuts served in sambar (a thin, spicy soup), wouldn't fare too well back in Tamil Nadu, and the Kerala Chicken Stew ($15) I tried was a bland affair of chicken and frozen vegetables, though I'm told the cinnamon and star anise are bolder on other nights.
Even the best Murray Hill Indian restaurants aren't without their foibles, so in this respect Kokum is running at par. The service is also on the good side of standard—solicitous and earnest, if overly so at times. But Indian couples and families crowd the dining room for a taste of food rarely seen beyond New Jersey or the outskirts of Queens. That's not necessarily a badge of quality, though it does speak to the uniqueness of the restaurant, and its relevance for diners looking to dig deeper into South Asian cuisine.
Kokum's menu is refreshingly uncompromising. There is no tikka masala, no samosas; it forces you to dive in and figure out which thoran is your favorite and how you like your fish curry. "This has been a very tough journey for me," Natarajan mentioned in an interview. "To introduce a new cuisine is very challenging. But people in New York are very adventurous. I couldn't do this in any other city."