One can only assume how miffed Ramesh Sharma must have been when Namaste, a new Indian restaurant, opened up just blocks down the road from India Garden, his own popular Indian restaurant, which has been a Lakewood staple for nearly 10 years.
The only problem with that assumption is that it was Sharma himself who opened it.
So confident is he in the public's understanding of Indian cuisine that he opened a seemingly competing restaurant on the very same street in the very same neighborhood. But while India Garden and Namaste might seem like parallel ports of call to some, they are polar opposites to diners well versed in the cuisines of the Subcontinent. The former, Sharma points out, serves North Indian food, while the latter is dedicated to dishes originating in South India.
"They are totally different menus, totally different food," he explains. And as such, he adds, the restaurant had to source a new chef sufficiently proficient. "A North Indian chef could not make this food."
Sharma says that he and his partner Sanjeev Sharma had been looking to open a South Indian restaurant for a couple of years, but were waiting for the right location to materialize. They settled on a roomy double storefront that has been reworked into a warm, elegant but simple dining room. Namaste opened just before Thanksgiving.
What makes Namaste's entrance into the neighborhood so timely — in addition to a general rise in the popularity and familiarity of Indian food — is that South Indian food is characterized by a predominance of vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free options. Breads and batters are made from rice and lentil flours, creamy coconut milk stands in for yogurt, and a full two-thirds of the menu is built around vegetables.
No dish typifies South Indian cuisine better, perhaps, than the dosa. Made from a fermented rice-and-lentil batter, these thin, griddle-fried crepes are rolled around various fillings and served with dipping sauces. Namaste offers a nice range of options ($8.95-$11.95) that include potato curry, paneer or plain butter. There is something very satisfying about tearing off a portion of the crepe with your (right) hand, scooping up some filling, and dragging it through the fresh, minty, spicy chutney or sambar, a warm vegetable stew.
That same flavorful sambar accompanies another staple of South Indian cuisine, idly ($5.95), a popular breakfast or snack food. On their own, these spongy, steamed, Wonder Bread-white rice patties are bland and oddly textured. But dunk them in the sambar and allow them to soak up the broth and it's easy to see why they are the comfort food of the South.
South Indian food has earned the reputation of being spicier and more complex than its northern brethren — a status that Sharma confirms. "These are coastal plains where the climate is warm and humid," he says. "The dishes are more aromatic and robust, and they cook with different spices to help cool the body down." Aka sweat.
Classics like Gobi 65 ($7.95) bring the heat in the form of deep-fried cauliflower florets shellacked in a chile pepper-red batter. Good becomes great when they are dipped into the cool and contrasting coconut chutney. The result is not unlike a tropical, vegetarian version of Buffalo wings. Like the gobi, the onion bhaji ($6.95) is a deep-fried, vegetarian snack — an Indian onion ring, if you will. And like the gobi, it would have benefitted immensely from a more crisp, fresh-from-the-fryer texture.
There likely is an entire spice cabinet of ingredients in the lamb Chettinaad ($14.95), a dark, fragrant and bottomless well of complexity. The chunks of meat are tender and the heat mounts, tamed only moderately and briefly by the cucumber and yogurt raita. There also are versions of this dish starring bone-in goat, chicken and veggies. A much milder vegetarian curry — Kerala-style ($12.95) — is moderated by a good dose of coconut milk in the sauce, which also mutes the pungency of the stew. For a dish (and cuisine) so reliant on vegetables, it's a shame so many of them begin here frozen.
Let's face it, the sauce-drenched rice is the best part of the Indian meal. Order the chicken dum biryani ($12.95) and it can be the entire meal. This festive and impressive dish features fluffy long-grain basmati rice, tender bone-in dark and white chicken, and a floral spice mixture that sets it apart from simpler biryanis. An earthy curry sauce is served on the side to be ladled over the rice.
Diners will have to wait to order a beer as the restaurant has yet to secure a license. As for whether or not India Garden has taken a hit since its brother from another region opened its doors, Sharma says no way.
"Our customers love both the places," he says. "They go back and forth."