South In­dian dishes the real star of magic show at Nama

Richmond Times-Dispatch Weekend - - CULTURE - BY JUSTIN LO Spe­cial cor­re­spon­dent Justin Lo writes free­lance re­views for the Rich­mond Times-Dis­patch. Fol­low him on Twit­ter or In­sta­gram @justin­sjlo.

Nama, a de­sign-driven In­dian restau­rant in the heart of down­town Rich­mond, feels like a sto­ry­book gar­den con­jured right out of the pages of “One Thou­sand and One Nights.” Near the en­trance there’s an en­chant­ing nook lined with porch swings. A life-like banyan tree stands with its noble arms out­stretched be­hind the bar. Moroc­can-style pen­dant lamps hang from the branches, cast­ing a hyp­notic glow on bar­go­ers be­neath.

I’d ex­pect noth­ing less. Af­ter all, Nama’s own­ers, LX Group — the same “restau­rant-ain­ers” that brought us Ka­bana rooftop and Switch Pop-Up Bar — know a thing about spec­ta­cle. But how would their tac­tics trans­late into food that’s ca­pa­ble of daz­zling both vis­ually and culi­nar­ily? The an­swer, it turns out, is pretty suc­cess­fully. Thanks to chef Ramesh Kaun­dal, who once cooked at D.C.’s fa­mous Bom­bay Club, and co-chef Madhu Bhar­gava, the kitchen im­parts some of that same magic in its dishes.

Nama doesn’t pur­port to draw strict ge­o­graph­i­cal lines with its menu. Rather, it en­cour­ages Rich­mond din­ers to try a pan-re­gional as­sort­ment of north and south In­dian dishes, with much of the menu ded­i­cated to pop­u­lar street foods and snacks. In­ter­est­ingly, though chefs Kaun­dal and Bhar­gava both orig­i­nally hail from north In­dia, the most spec­tac­u­lar dishes hap­pen to be the ones that cap­ture south In­dia’s lighter, spicier sen­si­bil­i­ties.

Of the small plates, I couldn’t help but marvel at the sleight of hand that gave such de­cep­tively big fla­vors to the masala crab ($15), a dish you’d find in seafood-rich parts of coastal south and cen­tral In­dia. Even the dain­ti­est

bite felt much larger than it was. Crowned with sa­vory rice crack­ers were briny shards of blue crab in al­ter­nat­ing tiers. Each layer of crab wore an in­tensely dry-spicy per­fume of curry leaf oil, mus­tard seeds and cracked pep­per. Caramelize­d onions in­cor­po­rated into this dish flirted ever so sweetly with the crab.

The po­tato bhonda ($7), an­other south In­dian spe­cialty, per­formed a sim­i­lar feat. Though heavy in your hand, th­ese fried, be­san chick­pea flour-bat­tered balls, plush with turmer­ic­spiced pota­toes, were vir­tu­ally weight­less in your mouth.

While lack­ing those shat­ter­ingly crisp edges of a tra­di­tional dosa, one of the few south In­dian dishes that’s gained pop­u­lar­ity state­side, Nama’s dosa ($11) — spongy scrolls of ground-lentil crepes coiled around softly blended pota­toes — was nonethe­less in­trigu­ing. The po­tato mix­ture, churn­ing with a po­tent con­coc­tion of curry leaves, mus­tard seeds, gin­ger and other spices, left my cheeks mys­te­ri­ously warm and tingly. A yi­nand-yang of sauces — a cool tradewind of co­conut chut­ney and warm sam­bar of asafetida, fenu­greek seeds and other spices — ac­cen­tu­ated this dish.

The north In­dian bites on Nama’s menu were more of a mixed bag. My least fa­vorite among them was the gar­lic naan ($3). The bread had gone so stiff that no amount of clar­i­fied but­ter could pos­si­bly bring it back to life.

I wasn’t ex­actly smit­ten with the pa­pri chaat ($7), ei­ther. Un­like with other it­er­a­tions of this sweet­sa­vory north In­dian snack I’d once had crav­ings for, I didn’t come to de­velop those same feel­ings for the one at Nama. Thrown to­gether in Pol­lock­ian fash­ion were strips of fried pa­pri, whorls of yogurt and tamarind and co­rian­der chut­neys, chick­peas and boiled pota­toes, mus­ket balls of puffed rice, and fresh to­ma­toes and red onions. Though this pot­pourri of in­gre­di­ents had a lot of in­ter­est­ing parts, the whole was some­what less in­ter­est­ing than the sum of those parts. And the fla­vors came across as more messy than taste­ful.

On the other hand, the khati roll ($11), a pop­u­lar street snack of north In­dian ori­gin, man­aged to cap­ture my heart, even though Nama’s wasn’t as in­dul­gently greasy as oth­ers. This, I’d later learn, was be­cause, in­stead of us­ing a tra­di­tional paratha, the restau­rant de­cided to add a lit­tle twist, by us­ing a tor­tilla dipped in egg. Its ver­sion, a portly bun­dle of chicken tikka, still packed an un­ex­pected wal­lop of fla­vor, thanks to some gravy rich with yogurt, gar­lic and spices, such as co­rian­der, turmeric and garam masala.

The restau­rant’s south In­dian-in­spired large plates were just as spec­tac­u­lar. Fish curry from south­ern Ker­ala ($22) came in a minia­ture caul­dron bub­bling with a fiery or­ange brew. The curry was laced with cocum, Kash­miri red chiles, tamarind, to­ma­toes, curry leaves and other spices.

Its vivid fla­vors re­vealed them­selves to you over time, and its sin­is­ter, sweat-in­duc­ing heat slowly un­folded on your tongue, leav­ing you huff­ing like a fire-breath­ing dragon. As if un­able to with­stand the pun­ish­ing heat, the vel­vety had­dock prac­ti­cally melted in sub­mis­sion into the curry.

Though biryani can be found all over In­dia, south In­dia, par­tic­u­larly Hy­der­abad, is most known for this dish. And Nama’s ver­sion ($15), with its lay­er­ing of com­po­nents dur­ing the cook­ing process and brawny spices that mus­cled their way into the fore­ground, felt dis­tinctly south­ern. A mix of to­ma­toes, onions and chiles was nested in scat­tered grains of long, slen­der bas­mati, kissed with aro­matic saf­fron, car­damom and cin­na­mon. The tex­ture and fla­vor of this dish trig­gered mem­o­ries of Sin­ga­porestyle curry rice noo­dles.

If you ask me, it’s just as well that Nama’s forte is its south In­dian dishes. We need more south In­dian food in this coun­try. And what bet­ter way to im­merse our­selves in this cui­sine and re­fine our un­der­stand­ing of what too of­ten gets lumped into the same gen­eral cat­e­gory of “In­dian” food than with a won­drously cu­rated menu in a won­drously cu­rated space like Nama’s?

DANIEL SANGJIB MIN/TIMES-DIS­PATCH

Nama’s pan-re­gional ar­ray of In­dian dishes in­cludes khati roll (top) and po­tato bhonda.

The dosa at Nama, ground-lentil crepes filled with blended pota­toes, is an in­trigu­ing take.

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