Friday 24 November 2017

Kerala Kitchen: 'The dhal is as heartily comforting as one could hope'

Kerala Kitchen, 5 Upper Baggot Street, Dublin 4, (01) 6687371

Kerala Kitchen. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Kerala Kitchen. Photo: Gerry Mooney

In the 2014 movie, Chef, Carl Casper, played by Jon Favreau, walks out of the kitchen at a high-end restaurant in Los Angeles, after too much creative interference from the owner, played by Dustin Hoffman, results in a poor review - and an ill-advised rant against a powerful restaurant critic that goes viral. In Miami, while he's figuring out his next move, Carl joins forces with his ex-wife, best friend and son to launch a food-truck business, which reignites his passion for cooking, as well as, says the blurb, "his zest for life and love".

God knows how many people have given up sensible, pensionable jobs to follow their dream of a life in food after seeing the film, but I'll wager it's quite a few. The food-truck scene is a phenomenon born out of tough times: lower start-up costs - as compared to bricks-and- mortar premises - make food trucks an attractive option for those wanting to dip a toe into the restaurant business without having major financial backing. The hope behind many of these ventures is that they will become successful enough to secure permanent homes, but progression is not guaranteed and many don't make the transition.

Kerala Kitchen started out as a food truck in Donegal in 2009, with Londoner Lewis Cummings, who had fallen for the freshness and vibrancy of south Indian food while travelling in Kerala in 2005, selling his food from a van. Word spread, queues formed, and Kerala Kitchen became a local hit. Encouraged by their success, Lewis and his Irish wife, Gráinne, moved to Dublin and set up a stall in the lunchtime market at Mespil Road, and quickly became a hit with local office workers.These days you'll find them at weekly markets at East Point, Spencer Dock, Mespil Road, Percy Place and Sandyford, and their hand-painted trailer at summer festivals including Body & Soul, Longitude and Electric Picnic. It's hard to miss their signature bright pink elephant.

Despite all this, I hadn't eaten Kerala Kitchen's food until I moved house last year, and their restaurant on Baggot Street, just down from the bridge (it's the one that says 'Fresh Indian Food' in the window) turned out to be around the corner. Over the space of a few months, it's become our default option for takeaways, although you have to get there early to beat the lunchtime queue, which is always populated by a reassuring number of Indian people who must work in the area.

On the ground floor of the Georgian building is the kitchen and takeaway counter, while upstairs in the high-ceilinged first-floor front reception room is the dining room, where customers have the choice of eating at one of the large communal tables or one of the smaller tables for two. The walls are painted a dark hue of grey and there's a smattering of Indian antiques; I can't think of anywhere else in the city that looks like this and it's quite charming.

On a Wednesday evening, every space in the dining room is taken. The four of us take an end of one of the large tables and, because we are super-hungry and have the excuse of being on a review, order all around us. Our lovely waiter explains that they don't serve starters and main courses as such - probably because he has to carry all the food up the stairs from the kitchen, which seems fair enough - and that all our food will arrive at the same time.

First up are complimentary mango lassis, served in metal beakers with a straw, that are too sweet for my palate but not for the others. The poppadoms come with three dips: sweet mango, tangy tamarind and minty yoghurt, and are light, crisp, fragrant and not at all greasy.

There's a prawn ambur biryani with deep flavours of cinnamon, star anise, cardamom and coriander, lamb seekh kebab that has heat and intensity, and a robust Nadan curry (from Tamal Nadu) rich with coconut, fresh curry leaves, mustard seeds, chilli and pepper - southern Indian food uses lots of coconut - that we declare our joint favourite of the night's dishes. (The other is the day's special aubergine and potato curry - aloo baingan - that we've had before as a takeaway dish and wish was on the permanent menu.) Tandoori chicken on the bone is tender and flavoursome from overnight marinating.

Kerala Kitchen makes its dhal with four different kinds of lentil tempered with mustard seeds, curry leaves and red chilli and it's as heartily comforting as one could hope.

The garlic and coriander naan breads are pleasantly light with a nice char, and the only disappointment is a dish of karara jinga - six "succulent mildly spiced tempura prawns" - that is way overpriced at €12 and curiously bland. I don't understand why prawns continue to warrant premium prices on Irish menus, as they are no longer an expensive ingredient unless their sourcing is exceptional.

Kerala Kitchen doesn't have a beer licence; the wine selection is limited and could do with some thought. We drank a bottle of serviceable Argentinian Malbec (€26) and our bill for four, with a couple of soft drinks, came to €131.75 before service. There were enough leftovers for lunch for two the next day.

THE RATING

8/10 food

8/10 ambience

8/10 value for money

24/30

ON A BUDGET

Saag paneer - spinach curry with green chilli and fresh Indian cheese - and chana saag - chickpeas with spinach, cumin, fennel and spices - each cost €10 or €8 to take away. (I eat one of these for lunch at least once a week.)

ON A BLOW-OUT

Karara jinga prawns and prawn biryani for two, with shared garlic and coriander naan, rice and a side of dhal, plus a bottle of Elephant Hill Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand (€30), will cost €100 before service.

THE HIGH POINT

Unpretentious food, charming service.

THE LOW POINT

Plastic containers for the dips.

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