At Plano's Chennai, a Magical Trip Down the Indian-Food Rabbit Hole
If you're not well versed, you could get lost in the ingredients required to make just one Indian curry. Scores of them can be featured in a single recipe, and one state in India offers enough dishes to keep you guessing for years. Start eating your way through the country's different regions and the culinary soup gets even murkier. To the north, tandoor ovens turn out breads and kebabs, while eastern India's fertile soil yields the wheat, potatoes and other vegetables featured prominently in its dishes. To the west, beef, chicken and pork point to European influences; move south and coconut invades every curry, paste, soup and chutney where it makes sense.
There's plenty to chew on, which is why those poor souls who are unfamiliar with Indian food end up in lengthy and soul-sucking marriages with butter chicken. But if you travel to Chennai Café, which is far enough up the Tollway to feel like a journey, and stick with recipes that are tailored to the timid, you'll forgo some of the most interesting cooking available in the Dallas area. The restaurant opened in June 2011 near the Legacy Town Center and courts predominantly Indian customers who crave big flavors. Here, the Tikka Masala, Vindaloo and other standards common on Indian buffets are listed on the online menu under "American Dishes." Ordering them is like breaking out your fanny pack to hunt for your wallet at the train station.
Don't eat like a food tourist in Plano. Instead, dive in with your hands. The diners at the table to your left are likely three knuckles deep in their curries, and they definitely know more about this food than you do. There's silverware on the table, but it's not necessary. Indian food is as much a tactile indulgence as it is a celebration for your palate, and with dishes like the naatu kozhi varuval, you won't have a choice but to get touchy with your dinner.
The thick curry is filled with Cornish game hen, left on the frame and violently hacked into small, bite-sized chunks. Sorting through the little bones, cartilage and tender pieces of meat requires a deliberate and careful dissection with your fingertips and teeth. It's tedious eating, but as the pile of meticulously cleaned bones collects on your plate, you'll be forced to realize that this is one of the best chicken curries you've ever tasted. The sauce alone, spooned over rice, will have you checking plane ticket prices to Bangalore.
Biryani is another dish that's often abused in translation. By the time it makes its way across the Pacific to a suburban Dallas strip mall, you're left with little more than meat and rice. Chennai's thalapakattu mutton biryani is made with little more than young goat meat, short grain rice and spices, but the mixture is tightly sealed and cooked in a heavy pot, over very low heat. The process is time consuming, which means the dish is only available Friday through the weekend, but it produces a texture as soft as the clouds, should atmospheric collections of water vapor taste like goat. If you stumble on a ribbon of fat that looks like something you'd have to chew on for a while, you won't. The meat is so young, and it's been cooked so long, it will melt on your tongue like some illicit drug. The dish is intense and gamey, like the flavor of 30 baby goats has been distilled into every teaspoon.
Not everything is as flavorful or unfamiliar. The masala dosa is a lot like every other dosa you've encountered, only better in every way. The massive rice crepe is served on a tray the size of a baking sheet, and still its crispy, lacy ends cascade over the sides. Inside, a potato curry is good enough to enjoy on its own, with potatoes colored yellow with turmeric, onions, yellow lentils that retain their crunchy bite, and massive cashews.
You should tear off a piece of the dosa, pinch up some of the potato curry and dip it in one of the three chutneys served in little wells on the same tray. Tomato, coconut, cilantro and mint will heat then cool then light up your day with brightness, while a fourth well containing a small bowl of stew teeming with vegetables will have you hunting for even more bread for dipping — or a spoon.
Just these three dishes are enough to feed four people, which is why you should always bring a posse to Chennai. There are too many flavors to explore, and you have only one stomach, and you're going to want to indulge the chile chicken as a warm-up.
The meat is breaded in a thin veil, and stir-fried in a mixture of spices that will have you pondering if you've stumbled into your favorite Chinese takeout, except Bollywood is playing on the televisions (and sometimes good Bollywood). The actors dance and gyrate with Botox smiles permanently painted on their faces, which is not unlike your stomach's reaction as you plunge your fork into another hunk of that mahogany-colored chicken garnished with crescents of onion and cilantro leaves.
The dish is straight out of the Indo Chinese playbook, but it's better that most versions. And vegetarians can experience similar flavors by ordering cauliflower fritters from the same side of the menu.
In fact, vegetarians have it easy here. Come at lunch and the thali offers one of the best dining values on the menu. The name refers to the style of dining and presents a round metal tray with a massive bowl of rice in the center. Surrounding the rice on the same tray, you'll find bowls of lentil stew, bottle gourd curry, beet curry, vegetable salads, yogurt, a sweet runny custard and a gulab jamun, which is a cloying, tan-colored, light and fluffy pingpong ball, flavored with rosewater and cardamom. You'll only need one for dessert, but you should indulge more anyway.
Try the rasmalai, which pairs light cheese dumplings with a cream sauce that's generous with saffron, or the kulfi, which is also made in house and comes in pistachio, rosewater and other flavors. The chai is bitter enough to make you pucker, but it's served with sugar, and in two cups so you can pour it back and forth and mix it together. You might be tempted to throw the tea in massive arcs, as it's done in South India to mix and aerate the liquid. Don't.
Instead sip your tea, and look around the dining room at the endless array of dishes on the tables around you. A basket of fried crunchy round tubes lands on one table, and it doesn't seem to match anything on the menu. When asked, the diners who received the snack have absolutely no clue what it is, even though they've been eating here a long time. A manager calls them fryums and says they're based on similar dough used to make a crisp savory wafer called a papadum. But that's beside the point. If Chennai can confuse its regular customers, it's almost certain to surprise you.
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