Semma’s dining room.
Photo: Adam Friedlander
So how do you enjoy a sumptuous South Indian feast while dining indoors (because at Semma there is a “hospital grade air filter system” but currently no outdoor dining) during the big Omicron peak with your KN95 Mask firmly affixed to your face?
“You don’t, Dad,” said one girl as we waited, a little apprehensively, for dinner to arrive at the latest Chintan Pandya–Roni Mazumdar operation, which has been open for a few months now on Greenwich Avenue in the ‘West Village.
“I think we smash everything really quickly, like we’re in the army, dad, and then we get out of here,” said the other girl, drawing, albeit possibly messy, trays of pancakes with mung beans, three large-cornered dosas and delicate portions of cooked goat intestines (kudal varuval) started slamming onto our table.
Despite the city’s repeated, albeit slightly jumbled, health guidelines, no other guests appeared to be wearing masks in the cramped, noisy, and increasingly crowded room, which unlike other successful restaurants in Pandya and Mazumdar (Add one, Dhamaka), looks less like a casual Indian canteen than a chic hotel bar in, say, Mumbai or the tourist area of Goa. The sleek, dimly lit space, once home to Pandya and Mazumdar’s original New York business, the Starry Rahi, has been redone in woodsy, tropical brown tones. Rattan shades hang from the rafters, and the ceiling is covered in a woven bamboo pattern designed to resemble the roof of a South Indian houseboat. Polished wooden cafe tables are tightly packed to enhance a raucous party atmosphere in pre-COVID style, and the long bar opposite is manned by bartenders vigorously shaking fusion cocktails with jovial names tinged with curry leaf and cardamom.
“I’m not taking off my mask for cooked goat intestines, Dad,” Girl No. 2 announced as Dad attempted to shovel delicate bites of this fiery Tamil dish onto his briefly lowered mask, before waving a arms wildly in the air and making frantic, muffled cries for a drink of water. The same happened with the excellent lamb appetizer attu kari sukka (flavored with slivers of coconut, lots of black cardamom and an impressive dose of Tellicherry peppers), although no one had a hard time to tackle the milder specialties of southern India such as crispy. the mung bean pancake, or the vegetable-covered uttapam, a pancake made with pounded lentils and rice, or the golden-colored homemade dosa, which the kitchen seasons with black garam and the spice “gunpowder ” with chilli and folds like a large tri-corner napkin around a spicy mashed potato and onion.
As with other “shameless Indian” establishments in the Pandya-Mazumdar portfolio, the idea behind Semma (“fantastic” in Tamil) is to introduce New Yorkers to regions of the Indian culinary map that most have never known before, which in this case is the home cooking of South India, particularly the coastal state of Tamil Nadu. Instead of Pandya, however, the chef in the kitchen here is Vijay Kumar, who, according to our (well-masked) waiter, brought up many of these recipes from his rural childhood. These include the aforementioned goat intestines, vegetable dishes like simple bowls of mustard greens mixed with bits of butternut squash, and the kind of tender little snails he used to forage when he was child, flavored here with tamarind and ginger and served with squishy wheels. of kal dosa made from rice and lentils.
I had tasted these snails during a previous visit, happily unmasked, but when I raised the possibility of ordering them again, my guests became more and more grumpy (“I focus more on this mask than on the food , daddy!”) shook their heads in protest. The same thing happened when I mentioned the lobster tail in coconut milk and the unmistakably messy signature Kanyakumari nandu masala, a crab dish named after the town on India’s southern coast. , which is reimagined here as a festive pre-order group feast with plastic Maryland-crab-style bibs and a giant Dungeness crab from the West Coast. “Imagine smelling that crab in your mask?” said one of my dining companions, at which point they and their cousin (“We seem to be drinking less with these masks on, which is less exciting”) decided to ditch the little dad experiment altogether.
As a health-conscious professional, Dad will continue his personal mask mandate, however, especially when there’s no option to sit shivering outside in what’s shaping up to be another tough winter and grim for New York restaurants and those of us who love them. . Did my KN95 make a difference to how I experienced the rest of our dinner, which included snake green long peppers drowned in an overly heavy peanut sauce; servings of plump, slightly gummy Southern-style goat biryani that didn’t feel half as clever or satisfying as the goat’s neck version available in Dhamaka; and what we all agreed was some forgettable coconut-themed desserts? I guess the answer is yes, although my daughters would like everyone to know that they noticed no difference between the dyspeptic critic in his sauce-stained mask and the forgetful, genial grumpy gentleman they see every day. days in the apartment.