One of my favorite meals of 2011 took place in the front seat of my car. Following up on a tip, I had landed at Taste of Kerala, a bare-bones storefront on Mayfield Road. The "restaurant" had no seating save for the few chairs up front for customers to plop into while waiting on take-out orders, the only type of orders the place offered. My intention was to order one or two dishes and hustle home, but when I looked at the menu — a short slip of paper with a handful of items — I went a little overboard. The front seat of a Honda coupe might not make for the most glamorous of dining rooms, but that meal still ranks as one of my favorite taste memories of the past 10 years.
As a fan of the cuisine, I had eaten at every other place in town, from the pricy Northern Indian staples of the east side to the economical South Indian joints on the west side, but that initial meal at Taste of Kerala made a lasting impression. Puffy idli with sambar, chickpea curry, and a goat biryani that blew the top of my head off with spice. In addition to the electric flavors, diners were rewarded with ridiculously low prices, a happy consequence of the low-overhead operation.
From nearly the beginning, owner Anil Kumar, who hails from the state of Kerala in South India, has spoken of his plans to open a restaurant. After six years of laying the groundwork, that dream came to fruition in October when Taste of Kerala was reborn as a full-service operation. The restaurant, in the former home of Tomaydo Tomahhdo, sits in the triangle formed by Chagrin Boulevard and East and West Brainard roads. The plan is to reopen the original spot, which is currently closed, following some renovations.
One of the first things diners see at the new place, if they're paying attention, is an entrance to the kitchen with clearly marked sides for vegetarian and non-vegetarian food preparation. If you're there for the lunch buffet, you'll notice also that the vegetarian and non-vegetarian chafing dishes are physically separated, steps that clearly are intended to put observant vegetarians at ease. Fans of the old spot will also see that the menu has gained considerable weight thanks to new options. Prices edged up too, but they still come in lower than many full-service competitors in the field.
There are few better comfort food experiences than dipping warm pieces of airy idli ($6.99) into tart and tangy sambar, a sort of vegetable stew. The steamed pancakes soak up the flavorful brew like a sponge. For a nice added kick, follow it up with some spicy chutney. Like those idli, dosas are made from a fermented batter of ground rice and lentils, and they go great with sambar and chutney, but that's where the similarities end. In the masala dosa ($8.49), a paper-thin, brittle-crisp crepe the length of one's forearm is rolled around a spiced potato mixture. Idiyappam ($9.99), an intriguing dish we haven't encountered elsewhere around town, arrives as twin nests of steamed rice flour noodles that are served with black chickpea curry for ladling over the top.
Taste of Kerala's curries are a revelation. Kerala is often called the spice capital of India, a claim that's backed up by many of the dishes served here. Black pepper, tamarind, turmeric, cardamom, curry, garlic, ginger and hot chile peppers, whose fury is often tempered by coconut milk, all make appearances. That tropical coconut enriches vegetarian dishes like eggplant masala and vegetable korma and non-veg dishes like beef curry and mutton korma. Staples like butter chicken ($10.99), chicken curry ($9.99) and tikka masala ($10.99) hit all the right marks and more. Those prices include basmati rice and naan, by the way.
Kumar's goat biryani ($13.99) is every bit as a good as I remember. It's dark, spicy and studded with tender bone-in goat meat. "Medium" here is a strong 7 on the Richter magnitude scale of heat. Those flames are moderated by dollops of cool, calming yogurt-based raita. There are other biryani varieties made with paneer, chicken, lamb and shrimp.
A recent lunch buffet ($12.99) was stocked and replenished with three vegetarian dishes, three meat dishes, a few starters like paneer pakora and vegetable cutlet, and sambar, naan and rice. There was no attempt to keep the fried starters warm, the three meat dishes were all chicken, and there was a disappointing absence of chutneys and raita. Despite those issues, the food was well prepared and worth the price.
It's clear that management is still getting the hang of this sit-down restaurant thing. Service was warm and attentive during a recent dinner, and our meals came out quickly, but it was also a bit frenetic and uneven. Tables that had been vacated before our arrival sat littered with dishes long after we sat down. While unseemly, it didn't affect our meal in the least.