I dug into my plate of scallops. i swirled them around in their aromatic chili-rich sauce. The recipe, from southern India, was the taste double of a mole colorado from a village outside Oaxaca in Mexico’s southern highlands. According to the poet Octavio Paz (who once served as Mexico’s ambassador to India), chilies came to India via Spanish and Portuguese missionaries, who may, he suspects, have brought back the flavorful mola curries of India.
Whatever its origins, the food at Surya (302 Bleecker Street; 807-7770) is full of spice and heat, and though it evokes many cuisines, it is still very much a modern rendering of the little-known (at least, to New York diners) cuisine of Chettinad in South India – in particular, the city of Kara Kudi, where owner Raja Sethu was raised. Working with former Fila creative director Keith Adams, Sethu has brought forth a soothing and stylishly modern space. Florence Knoll couches from the twenties give a Raj-Deco informality to a drinks nook at the entrance. Bar stools of sand-blasted oak and banquettes in blues and greens contribute to the serene atmosphere, while a large handwoven lampshade lends a hint of Mahatma-ish homespun. East never met West in such elegant laid-backness.
The food is a combination of Sethu’s own recipes with ideas from executive chef Sriram Aylur and chef consultant Raji Jallepalli (of the highly regarded Raji restaurant in Memphis, Tennessee). The offspring of this ménage à trois is a menu that is both down-home (if your home happens to be the Indian subcontinent) and très downtown.
Among the appetizers, the kaikari vegetable rolls scented with black salt and cumin are the Tamil version of the egg roll: The spices vie with the chewy ingredients for star billing. Subtly flavored crab cakes are served with a not-to-be-ignored cilantro-and-green-chili sauce, the house’s version of a fiery Tabasco. And the soft-shell crabs – or scallops, depending on the season – are served in a molelike sauce with good chili heat and scented with coriander and a hint of fresh curry leaves.
Among the entrées, the dosai is a large crêpe wrapped into a cone shape; lift the crêpe and there is a piece of sea bass done to flaky perfection with a swirl of light chutney. The meen kolambu is a fillet of grouper with a tangy sweet-and-spicy sauce that is powerfully bold. A grilled halibut with ginger and coconut cream is more gentle: a touch of welcome smoothness amid all the spiced and chilied pyrotechnics. The rack of lamb in Chettinad spices (cumin, curry leaves, coriander, and chili) is a near-perfect marriage of French technique and Indian ingredients – a goal that Chef Aylur strives for in all his food. He almost always succeeds, although the intriguing steamed and flaked shark tossed with pepper, ginger, and curry leaves turned out a bit meat-loafy (or should that be fish-sticky?).
If you are a vegetarian, you can still eat marvelously here. I particularly liked the creamy eggplant and potatoes, and, mirabile dictu, the vendakai mandi (a concasse of tomato) had ungummy okra! The sprouted lentils and spinach cooked with cumin and mustard seeds were crunchy yet smooth, and the steam rising from the spinach carried a seductively bracing mustard perfume.
A few words about desserts. Try them all. The shrikhand, a Sethu-family favorite, are light and doughy balls accented with pistachios, cardamom, and saffron. The vermicelli payasam with nuts and raisins is soft, smooth, and sweet; it’s a kind of half-pasta, half-pudding dish that is a must-eat for kids – sure to please even the most pampered Brahmin brat.
Dinner only, Monday through Thursday 6:30 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 6:30 to 11:30 p.m. Appetizers, about $9; entrées, about $17. All major credit cards.