Fragrant, blended spices make Indian food, from every part of the subcontinent, so compelling and addictive. How often have I marveled at the complexity of a South Indian vegetarian meal, made of the most modest ingredients?
How did this highest and most civilized of culinary cultures come about? Who figured out how to make something as fantastic as a dosa?
I was thinking about this as I sat down at a little table in the front window of Gajalee’s, the new sister restaurant of the vegetarian Udupi Palace, a few blocks away on Valencia Street.
Gajalee focuses on South Indian meat and fish preparations, with a few familiar northern dishes thrown in as a security blanket, I suppose.
Anyone who has traveled in the tropical heat of South India knows the diet is diverse, not just vegetarian.
Those who haven’t, but pick up some South Indian buzzwords — xacuti, chettinad, malvani — will be able to navigate Gajalee’s five-page menu like an old India hand.
Since so much of South India is coastal, start with the luscious meen pollichathu ($13), a filet of satiny true cod coated in a spice paste and steamed in a banana leaf, served with yogurt, minced onion and tomato.
Or go for the fish thali ($15), a meal of many components on a shiny metal tray, starring moist fried fish with an appealingly gritty semolina crust, redolent of turmeric and ground chilies.
Malabar black pepper, spicy hot and floral at the same time, works magic in chicken chettinad ($11), a dish from Tamil Nadu, with piquant tamarind and the toasted caramel scent of fennel seed. Cooked in a coconut milk emulsion, the chicken stays moist while picking up the flavors of the spices.
Lamb xacuti ($12), from Goa, has a creamy, fruity tamarind sauce, perfumed with cardamom. Like the chicken, the mild lamb stays moist.
Fish malvani ($13) is hotter, clove-scented and rich with coconut milk. You can taste the fish clearly in the sauce.
Veg kolhapuri ($9) with a sauce thick with onions, grated cashews, yogurt, pepper and grated coconut, should have graced fresh cauliflower and peas instead of something akin to frozen vegetables straight out of the bag. The dullness of the table chutneys is surprising, but you really don’t need them on this saucy food.
Service, from the moment you walk through the door to the final settling of the check, is tortoise-slow. There seems to be no recognition by the staff, often limited to one person, that a customer might want a glass of wine before the meal is over, or that if payment is actually accepted for a long-awaited check, a table will become free for those who have been waiting in the entryway forever.
The tasty wines ($5, $18), by the way, go with the food, and the pours are big.
Yet, all is forgiven when the fish thali hits the table, and every dunk, scoop and spoonful of the aromatic food produces wonder at the infinite ingenuity of cooks.
Location: 525 Valencia St. (between 16th and 17th streets), S.F.
Contact: (415) 552-9000
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Fridays-Sundays for lunch; 5:30 to 10 p.m. Sundays and Tuesdays-Thursdays, 5:30 to 11 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays for dinner; closed Mondays
Price range: Appetizers $5 to $9; main courses $11 to $13; thali plates $11 to $15
Recommended dishes: Fish thali, meen pollichathu, chicken chettinad, lamb xacuti, veg kolhapuri
Credit cards: MasterCard, Visa
This is my last column for the San Francisco Examiner. To keep following my reviews, you can subscribe to my printed newsletter “Unterman on Food” for the whole story, or visit my new website at www.untermanonfood.com for capsule, up-to-the-minute food, travel and dining notes.