Kochi-style vegetable stew. Photo: Hugo Yu

At the southernmost tip of India, where the Indian Ocean, Arabian Sea, and Bay of Bengal meet, is a town called Kanyakumari, which, as of this week, also shares its name with New York’s first restaurant specializing in dishes from the Indian coast. Kanyakumari, the restaurant, is on 17th Street in a space that until a few weeks ago was home to Kebaya, a Peranakan restaurant from owner Salil Mehta. Mehta, a native of landlocked New Delhi, is the owner of Kanyakumari, too, and he’s put the menu in the hands of chef Dipesh Shinde. Together, the two are using the new restaurant to explore the food of their home country’s coast. “Southern India is a spice-forward region with asafoetida, curry leaves, mustard seeds, dried chile — all of these amazing ingredients come together,” Mehta says. “It makes you salivate, it makes you want to eat more.”

A curd rice croquette immediately evokes comparisons to arancini, but the interior is much lighter, made creamy with cool yogurt and flavored with flecks of fried curry leaf and mustard seeds folded throughout. The coconut oil used for all of their deep frying adds an aroma as well, and once the papadum crust is golden, the balls are plated with a dot of concentrated lime pickle and a charred green pepper.

Thayir sadam bonda, the curd rice balls. Photo: Hugo Yu

You should also get an order of fried mussels, a chaud-froid starter dredged in a spicy blend of semolina and rice flour, then topped with a nub of finger lime and chile chutney. Each is served in its own half shell and finished at the table with a dash of solkadhi, a cool drink that gets its beet-red hue from kokum, a dried fruit Mehta compares to tamarind, and would typically be consumed as a beverage alongside the mussels koliwada.

They’ve decorated the room with massive seashells imported from Kanyakumari suspended from the tall ceiling, as well as woven cane screens that diffuse the overhead lights. A slightly smaller seashell also serves as the vessel for an orange-red Kozhikode curry poured over an equally colorful roasted butterflied branzino with grated coconut. From the same state of Kerala comes a mildly sweet stew dotted with blanched broccoli, asparagus, peas, and carrot in a sauce of cashew-thickened coconut milk. The dish gets most of its flavor from a finishing layer of tadka: asafoetida, mustard seeds, lentils, and whole dried chile pepper fried until they pop in coconut oil infused with enough curry leaf to stain it bright green.

Whatever you get, you’ll need some bread or rice. The menu has a few different options, like neer dosa, a lacy rice-based crepe. Kanyakumari also serves the fermented rice-and-coconut crepes hoppers, which speak to the Tamil population that overlaps from Southern India to Sri Lanka, as does the curried crab sukka. Mehta says that, in the best of circumstances, the dish would be made with Sri Lankan mud crabs, but the restaurant replaces it with an ingredient that’s more readily available in Manhattan: Dungeness from Vancouver.

Mussels koliwada. Illustration: Hugo Yu

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