Unlike northern Indian cuisine, with its cream-based curries and frequent use of ghee (clarified butter), the foods of southern India are lighter in texture yet spicier in flavor. Tamarind, coconut, yogurt, long-grain rice and whole-wheat breads such as paratha ($1.95) help temper the spiciness of many dishes.
Begin your evening with a 22-ounce Taj Mahal beer ($6.50) or a bottle of Columbia Crest Riesling ($20) to keep the oncoming heat at bay. Then start with the Chicken 65 ($5.99). Tender, juicy chicken pieces are marinated in a yogurt masala sauce with just a hint of citrus and served atop shredded lettuce. For extra spice, try the masala fried fish ($5.99) with pieces of whitefish coated in a cumin, coriander, cayenne combination. A side of raita ($1) made with homemade yogurt and minced cucumber helps allay the heat.
Mysore masala dosa ($6.49) is a standout among the entrees. A platter-sized, ultrathin crepe is filled with potatoes spiced with fresh curry leaves, and is served with a traditional sambar (lentil vegetable soup) and a side of freshly shaved coconut chutney. It makes a great meal for one or an appetizer to share. Chicken saag ($10.95) does this dish justice with just the right blend of cooked spinach and diced chicken flavored with curry, coriander and fenugreek — a great choice to mop up with a piece of roti (grilled bread) for $1.50.
But the spice is where it’s at. Live on the edge and order the lamb vindaloo ($11.95). Its culinary roots extend to Portugal, with its use of malt vinegar and tangy tomatoes. Boneless leg of lamb is cooked in a heavily spiced sauce infused with plenty of red chilies and black peppercorns. You will sweat joyfully. Same goes for the Malabar chicken curry ($10.95), which combines ground curry spice with coconut milk in a robust sauce. All dishes are served with a side of basmati rice.
Nightly chalkboard specials include more adventurous treats such as a shrimp hora piasa ($13.95) blending jumbo shrimp with spring onions in a spicy brown sauce. Desserts include a classic kheer for $2.50 (Indian rice pudding) and kulfi ($2.50) a homemade ice cream.
For lunch, sample several southern Indian staples from the buffet ($7.75) including onion pakoras (lightly battered onion fritters), crispy pappads (fried lentil and black peppercorn crisps), rasam (a lightly spiced lentil essence soup), curried green beans, lamb biryani (richly flavored rice with curried lamb) or chicken korma (in a cashew- and almond-based cream sauce). It’s a considerable amount of food and an excellent bargain.
Owner Ram Pai, of India House fame, is from the Malabar region of India and brings authenticity to the foods showcased on his menu. Both his chefs boast a formal culinary education that’s clearly shown in their ability to take classic Indian cuisine a notch or two up the gastronomic ladder.
Yet Pai’s philosophy about his restaurant remains simple. “Energy is what’s important,” he says. This, and solid attention to detail, makes Malabar a standout in Richmond as each dish, although spicy, retains its own individual flavor and style. SMalabar Indian Cuisine ($)
3456 Lauderdale Drive
Lunch: Tuesday through Sunday 11 a.m. – 2:30 p.m. Dinner:Tuesday through Sunday
Letters to the editor may be sent to: email@example.com