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Thursday, March 22, 2001
TOKYO FOOD FILE
2001: A SPICE ODYSSEY
Islands in the stream of Indian cuisine
It was no accident that led us to Athara Petara -- we always keep an ear to the ground for the latest of good new venues for foods from other parts of Asia. But anyone fortunate enough to stumble upon this friendly little eatery by chance will understand immediately why the word serendipity was coined from the ancient Arab name for the island we know today as Sri Lanka.
Quite simply, to eat Sri Lankan cuisine for the first time is a revelation, especially if you are expecting little more than a country cousin of the cooking delivered by most Indian restaurants. Sure, there are resonances from South India, and the coconut-based curries are not so far from those of Thailand. But the complex vernacular of hoppers, string hoppers, sambolas and devils is entirely homegrown Sinhalese.
There have been Sri Lankan restaurants on the periphery of the city for many years now (notably Ceylon Inn, near Naka-Meguro, and the reliable Court Lodge chain). But Athara Petara is the first to venture into the Tokyo mainstream -- not merely by siting itself in Roppongi but by taking the effort to make this little known cuisine absolutely accessible to all comers.
The split-level second-floor dining room is as relaxing and friendly as an ocean-front beach bar. Bamboo and rattan predominate, with textiles across the ceiling, wooden elephants, clay pots and tourist photographs, the inevitable map and national flag, and a string of fairy lights blinking on and off. A tall bronze oil lamp flickers in the center of the room.
The menu is attractively laid out in English and Japanese. Each entry has its chili quotient clearly indicated. For hesitant first-timers, there are set menus (starting from 2,000 yen) to choose from. But, just as the fun of foreign travel lies in wandering away from the main tourist sites, equally there is much to be gained by exploring some of the less-obvious corners of the a la carte listings.
First order a round of papadums and a bottle of the local beer -- Lion Lager and the tasty but more filling Lion Stout are among the best in Asia. If there's a party of you, share some of the other appetizers, too, such as the spicy grilled fish or the bolla kadala (stir-fried chickpeas and coconut).
For your second course, go to the section marked "The Devils." These spicy stir-fries of chicken, beef, pork, prawn or squid, cooked up with onion, ginger and chili in a tomato-based sauce, go well with a serving of gothamba rotti, the indigenous thin unleavened bread of plain white flour that is not so different from Mexican tortillas. Or stoke up the inner flames with a bowl of the Molagathanni soup, warming and well laden with black pepper.
Your main deliberations will be over which of the 28 curries to choose from. The most straightforward options are the red beef, yellow chicken, spicy fish or the yellow-red lentil varieties. Less obvious but more rewarding selections would be the bandak ka curriya (okra in yellow curry); kiri malu (chunks of swordfish in a spicy but delicate coconut soup); the savory young banana curry; and/or one of the dry curries, such as the bonchi baduma, a fiery portion of green beans cooked down in tongue-tingling spices.
For a side dish, the classic accompaniment is sambola, a crumbly, moist preparation of shredded coconut with lemon juice and chili. To help the rice go down, ask for a portion of Sinhalese mango and onion pickles.
Make sure to keep space at the end for dessert -- especially the watalappan, a smooth, custardlike pudding made from coconut milk, egg and jaggery palm sugar. Then round off the meal with a cup of Ceylon tea and a shot of arrack, a liquor not unlike a dark rum, to see you home.
It is this complex, well-balanced variety of flavors, textures and ingredients that makes a Sri Lankan meal so very much more rewarding than the belly-bloating experience offered by most Indian restaurants. And since you will only have scratched the surface of what Athara Petara has to offer, you are likely to find yourself planning your next visit before you are even out of the door.
There are two main reasons why Nataraj has been so consistently overlooked when assessing the merits of Indian food in Tokyo. The first is no doubt because it hews to a strictly vegetarian furrow. This is entirely unremarkable in the context of the subcontinent, but possibly off-putting to trenchermen from other parts of the world where the absence of meat is interpreted as tantamount to self-inflicted malnutrition or (even worse) wild-eyed faddism.
And then there's the location. Not that we have anything against Ogikubo, it's just that unless you live on that side of town, even the best places start to drop off the radar.
So this is why it's such excellent news that Nataraj has opened a more central branch, right on Aoyama-dori and just a few steps from Gaienmae Station. Located in bright new basement premises, it still feels very crisp and clean. A tandoor oven stands by the door; the walls are adorned with representations of the Taj Mahal and wooden ibis heads, and there's gauzy material draped here and there. The decor feels refreshingly restrained compared to the overwrought interiors of so many other Indian curry houses.
As far as the food goes, it is -- praise the gods -- every bit as good as the original. The principals are, of course, unchanged: not a shred of meat or fish; protein is derived from beans and from savory soybean gluten, which is tasty and sufficiently chewy to satisfy most carnivores, especially when served as a tikka; organic brown rice is available as an alternative to the yellow turmeric polished variety; and the vegetables are grown in their own organic market gardens.
The curries are prepared with a judicious balance of spices, without being top heavy on chili. Our current favorites are the sai bhaj, a smooth cream of spinach and lentils; paneer makhanwala, a mild tomato-based roux with chunks of soft panir cheese; and the more forthright vegetable curry, nicely spiced but not overwhelmingly hot, and featuring good amounts of carrot, brinjal, pumpkin and cauliflower.
The best way to to sample a good selection of these is to order one of the set meals: Radha (2,500 yen; choice of two curries, plus papadum and dessert); Amrapali (3,500 yen; three curries, appetizers, a petite salad plus dessert); or the Special (5,000 yen; four curries, along with soup and several other dishes). Individual portions are small, but they add up to a well-rounded meal that is much more than the sum of its parts.
An earnest simplicity prevails at Nataraj, without pretension or persuasion. But there's nothing doctrinaire when it comes to the new, upgraded drinks menu which covers the gamut from cocktails and beer to a small but sturdy collection of wines.
There is a strong contingent of true believers in Tokyo who maintain that Nataraj serves not just the best vegetarian fare in town but also the best Indian food. Here at the Food File, we can find few reasons to disagree with that assessment.
The original Nataraj is close to Ogikubo Station, tel: 3398-5108. * * * Send all comments and recommendations to email@example.com