Semma’s servers walk around in black long-sleeved T-shirts printed with a white logo that reads Unapologetic Indian. This is a reference to Unapologetic Foods, the company that Semma runs along with Dhamaka and Adda Indian Canteen. It is also the group’s slogan, a vow to offer dishes that are not out of the ordinary.
With its sly implication that what other Indian restaurants are selling isn’t quite real, “Unapologetic Indian” is a virtuoso piece of marketing. You could also read it as a belated throwback to the British Raj, which put an area of one of the world’s greatest culinary cultures under the rule of colonial rulers from the country that gave us mushy peas and bubbles and beeps.
But after spending some time browsing the dishes that come out of Semma’s kitchen, which has been on Greenwich Avenue in the village since October, it’s hard to imagine anyone on earth would want an apology for such good food.
The chef, Vijay Kumar, grew up on a rice farm outside the city of Madurai in Tamil Nadu. At Semma, he presents the cuisine of his home state in particular and of South India more generally. From the long and deep vegetarian traditions of the region – it has several – Semma has taken a number of dishes that seem more contemporary than you might expect. Mulaikattiya thaniyam, a small enduringly spicy salad of shredded coconut and mung beans with pale, crunchy, squiggly sprouts, could be on the menu at one of the more serious plant-based hangouts in the East Village. Also the Mangalore huukosu, cauliflower baked in a chickpea-and-rice flour batter and then dressed with coconut chutney.
Not that Mr. Kumar doesn’t offer a few dishes that make New York’s new vegan mayor drop his fork. But while Dhamaka’s double dog will challenge you to eat goat testicles, the most eyebrow-raising dish at Semma is probably kudal varuval, a dry curry made from goat’s intestines. It stands out for the warm appearance of the caramelized onions and coconut milk in its thick gravy, and for the easy texture of the entrails, not chewy or mushy but softly firm, like mortadella. You can even make a sandwich by folding some into a soft triangle of the kal dosa served on the same plate. I would recommend one of these little bites to anyone who is open to eating at the end of the digestive tract.
When Adda arrived in Queens in 2018, followed by Dhamaka in Manhattan last year, their striking vision of Indian cuisine seemed to be fueled by a personal creative breakthrough from their chef, Chintan Pandya. Rather than adapting the vast repertoire of his native country to American gastronomic values, as he had done in Junoon, or merging it with other influences, such as Rahi, he went back to the source and found street snacks and home-cooked recipes that original power had not been wiped out by professionals in white coats.
One thing that makes Semma so exciting is that it suggests that Mr. Pandya had more than a personal revelation. He seems to have found an approach that he can share with other chefs: Unapologetic Foods’ open source code. (Mr. Pandya is the chef and a partner in the group, which is owned by Roni Mazumdar.)
Until last year, Mr. Kumar was the executive chef at Rasa, in Burlingame, California, where the most popular menu item was a potato fritter on a bun called a Bombay Slider. He described the cooking in a telephone interview as “South Indian, but with lots of local Californian ingredients and a little modern tech.” At Semma, he said, “we focused entirely on real South Indian food, just the way we’ve eaten it at home.”
I have not visited the rice field of the Kumars, I can not vouch for that. But at Semma, he serves two childhood dishes that you’d find hard to find in any other New York restaurant. One is nathai pirattal, snails stir-fried with onions and tomatoes, acidified with tamarind and served in a small box made from banana leaves. The other is Chettinad-style venison, a shank braised to sticky tenderness with star anise and a lichen called black stone flour which is one of the prized seasonings of the Chettinad pantry.
Dosas are much less obscure. Almost any local South Indian restaurant from Floral Park in Queens to Iselin, NJ will make you a dosa. This doesn’t mean you have permission to skip the triangular gunpowder dosa at Semma. It might be impossible to create a dosa with a more dramatic contrast between the crisp, amber-brown, toasted exterior and the soft, spongy interior; it seems physically impossible to reconcile these two extremes on something no thicker than a potato chip. The standard filling of soft potato masala, yellow with turmeric and freckles with mustard seeds, is orbited by the thumping heat of a ground chili spice mixture – the gunpowder.
The excitement Adda and Dhamaka generate from the raw power of the rustic cuisine, Semma instead gets the brightness of the chutneys, the richness of the coconut milk sauces, the dense layers of ginger and freshly ground spices. Semma also has a longer, more varied menu and pays more attention to vegetables, making it easier to fill the table with dishes that all have something different to say.
These comparisons are not intended as criticism. Semma is bigger and more expensive than its Unapologetic siblings, and it’s built for a more comfortable, relaxed night’s sleep. The space used to belong to Rahi. The long, inviting bar has remained, but now there are woven mats on the ceiling and wicker basket pendant lights, a taste of the kitchen’s shift to tropical regions. The interior is now brighter and more colorful, but for pure bouncy energy, it struggles to keep up with the twists and turns of the South Indian pop playlist.
The wine list, an afterthought at the other two Unapologetic restaurants, is concise but purposeful; it seems to have been put together by someone experienced in eating Indian food with wine. There are some extraordinary beers, along with a handful of cocktails infused with things like curry leaves and cardamom. Why you can’t have a cup of tea is beyond me, but I don’t hold my breath waiting for an apology.
What the stars mean Due to the pandemic, restaurants are not getting star ratings.