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Desi eatery Southern Spice serves down-home fare from India's deep south

Southbound and down

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South India cuts a wide gastronomic swath due in part to the large numbers of Catholics in Goa and Kerala, as well as the beef-hungry denizens of Karnataka, the city of Bangalore in particular. But restaurants here specializing in the fare of the subcontinent's southern bits focus predominantly on the region's meatless dishes – the dosas, idlis, uttapams and other lentil-rich mainstays, as well as the sundry veg curries.

I had a wee glint of hope that Southern Spice would spurn protocol and serve a Kerala beef fry or a Goan pork vindaloo, but I suspect doing so would risk alienating a sizable chunk of the restaurant's demographic and, frankly, Indian restaurants in the area tend to err on the side of caution. So Desis craving beef will have to settle for the Mughlai fare at Muslim-run, Indo-Pak joints around town (I'd start with Ahmed Restaurant and Charcoal Zyka), while those desiring pork vindaloo or Goan feijoada may have to settle for the slop served at the Whole Foods hot bar.

It's a stacked one, the menu at Southern Spice; we were happy to see several suspects of the unusual kind. There are kuzhi paniyaram ($6), puffy orbs resembling Danish æbelskiver fashioned from a fermented batter of rice and black lentils, and served with sambhar (a multi-spiced lentil soup) alongside coconut and tomato chutneys for dipping. There's kothu paratha ($14), a dry street snack from Tamil Nadu with shreds of the Indian bread mixed with egg, chicken and various spices. I say "various spices" for the sake of brevity, but should the inner Zimmern in you opt for the vegetable Chettinad ($15), the heady curry will be served with no less than 28 spices toasted and cooked therein. When cardamom, cloves, mustard seeds, fenugreek seeds, star anise, fennel seeds, peppercorns, cinnamon, poppy seeds, chilies, kapok buds, stone flower, cumin seeds, coriander seeds, garam masala (itself a combination of spices) and a host of other secret ingredients are used to season a curry, as here, it can have a polarizing effect. Some absolutely love the gravy's earthy and peppery pungency, while others turn away from it. The vegetables (cauli, carrots) and paneer in the thickened sauce were practically afterthoughts – it's all about the gravy here, whether you choose to enjoy it with rice or one of the many breads, like flaky Kerala paratha ($3). For a taste less charged, another Chettinad specialty – kola urundal ($16) – comes spiked with a sprig of fried curry leaves and with magnificent little fried lentil "kofta" lolling in the thickened swell. By the way, when ordering such spice-heavy dishes as these, lassis ($5), be they mango or salty, can prove palliative to guts not used to being so heavily peppered.

But you can't have a conversation about South Indian cuisine without a mention of seafood, and the meen rawa ($28), a whole marinated pompano coated with semolina and pan-fried, outshone a dish of jumbo shrimp ($9) marinated in a spicy red masala and served atop a papadum. We picked that fish clean then boldly requested the recipe for the marinade. You can try too, but you'll likely be met with a polite refusal by any of the restaurant's resolute servers.

Being denied a cup of masala chai ($4) at meal's end, however, was entirely unexpected (we were courteously informed they'd run out or some such thing). I have to say, an Indian restaurant without chai is like a trattoria without espresso, though our server's respectful suggestion of badam halwa ($5) – almonds pureed in ghee and sugar ($5) – was a small consolation. Yeah, these guys are all about Southern hospitality. fkara@orlandoweekly.com