Since learning that India’s 1.3 billion people enjoy at least 30 distinct cuisines, I’ve sighed reading Western New York’s Indian menus. Tandoori chicken is nice, but my hunger for more Indian treasures has only grown. So imagine my fascination when I opened the menu at Nellai Banana Leaf to find 30 or 40 dishes I’d never seen before.
South Indian Chettinad cuisine is its declared specialty, so I started reading. It’s based in Tamil Nadu state, the southeastern tip of India. The Chettiars are a people historically including merchants and bankers with business across Asia, from the Arab Straits of Hormuz to Singapore.
Access to the broad repertoire of spices and influences gave rise to a cuisine noted for its aromatic subtlety. “The Bangala Table,” a Chettinad cookbook, declares: “One is lucky to eat like a Chettiar, they say in South India.”
After spelunking through the menu, I believe you’ll also say that in Clarence.
Except for a flatscreen showing Bollywood, the room is plain. The food is anything but. Set in an outbuilding strip in the southeastern quadrant of Transit Road and Main Street, the restaurant was started by some banking tech workers frustrated they had to drive to Toronto to get the kind of Indian food they like best. So thanks to Antony Kulandairaj and Kalimuthu Chithambaram for getting impatient.
Without them, I’d have never met an appam, a bowl-shaped pancake of fermented rice and coconut batter, served plain ($5.99), egg-topped ($6.99), or with curry, in vegetarian or meaty versions. Tearing and dipping into a vegetable korma led to an appreciation of the Chettinad interest in subtle sourness.
So much of the Northern Indian curry-based menus have sneaked into sweet territory. Let’s hear it for more dishes like ennai kathirikkai ($10.99), peach-sized eggplants split open, stuffed with spices, and simmered to tenderness in a garlic tamarind gravy.
Parotta is a flaky flatbread, layered like croissants, served with curries, and used as the foundation of other dishes. Another new-to-me delight was chilli parotta ($9.99), flatbread chunks sauced and tossed in a hot pan with onions, peppers, and curry leaves until they acquire a distinct smokiness.
Mutton kothu parotta ($13.99) was a delicately sauced tumble of shredded bread, chiles, onions, fried curry leaves, and meat, served with gravy and onions in yogurt. Avoiding sogginess, it was jazzy comfort food, like Thanksgiving stuffing conceived on the Bay of Bengal.
Speaking of which, fish is a strength here. Whole fish fans should consider the tandoori pompano ($15.99), a whole flatfish scored and roasted so the spice paste sears into the skin for flavorful snacking before pulling filets from the frame. Simpler is the vanjaram fish fry ($13.99), a kingfish steak griddle-seared with a piquant spice crust.
Malabar fish curry ($13.99), with boneless tilapia, was a beguiling introduction to the complexity and depth of Chettinad spice mixtures. For a time, I tried to identify which spice was which in the tangy tamarind background, but decided it’d be easier to pick out the second violin in a bravura performance of Beethoven’s Fifth.
On the meat side, aatu eeral pepper fry ($11.99), spiced goat liver, used canny spice selection to channel the meat’s mineral strength into a robust pleasure.
Chicken pepper fry ($9.49), a Chettinad classic, is chopped bone-in chicken cooked in a dark, dank, nearly dry sauce intense with chile and black pepper. It’s the hottest dish I enjoyed, on the brow-sweat-popping edge of too much.
Tandoori chicken ($10.99/$19.99) was juicy to the bone and full of flavor, a testament to superior marination, and the best I’ve had in town.
Nellai’s dosa game is strong, with a dozen versions of the savory crepes, from a raggedy folded to a table-length family special ghee paper roast ($18.99) that serves six to eight. It was so crispy I could hear guests tear off handfuls. Podi ghee dosa ($9.99) sprinkled with “gunpowder” chile-based spice dust and extra butter was my favorite.
Five taste uthappam ($10.99) are palm-sized rice batter pancakes, with onion, tomato, mint, paneer, and cashew versions. They’re offered with three dipping sauces – fresh coconut and mustard seed, mint-cilantro-lime chutney, roasted tomato, all outstanding versions – and sambar, spicy lentil soup.
Desserts include carrot halwa ($4.99), shredded root simmered in sweet cardamom browned butter; wonderfully light rasamalai ($4.99), cheese discs soaked with cold cardamom milk, and something called nellai halwa ($5.99). The menu said it was wheat flour cooked with milk and ghee to “a slimy perfection.” What arrived was the best mucilage I’ve ever tasted, “Ghostbusters” ectoplasm as a buttery toffee delight.
Downsides: no alcohol, but a full bar license application is in the works. Also, service that’s rudimentary, if not quite rude. “You’re getting the authentic Indian experience,” my Indian-American friend joked, when we sought rewatering. “You’re being ignored.”
I got over it. This is my new favorite Indian restaurant, and I’m certain it can get better. All Indian fans in Western New York should take its measure, and get a little dosa Chettinad cuisine.
Nellai Banana Leaf – 8 plates (out of 10)
Location: 4303 Transit Road, Clarence, 276-3786
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday; 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., 5:30 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., 5:30 to 9 p.m. Sunday; closed Monday.
Prices: appetizers $3.99 to $13.99; entrees $6.99 to $16.99.
Atmosphere: Quiet family space.
Wheelchair accessible: Yes.
Gluten-free: Many choices.