One of the reasons we visit restaurants is to be transported, if only for an hour, to a different spot on the map. Gajalee, the new restaurant from the owners of Udupi Palace, takes you to the laid-back beach towns and rustling coconut palms of India's Malabar Coast. Recessed paintings of white-capped cerulean waves on the ceiling seem like skylights with an ocean view. Sitar music plays softly in the background. Steaming dishes full of unfamiliar flavors and ingredients arrive on silver trays adorned with banana leaves. A short trip to a tropical paradise, or perhaps Shangri-la.
Most Americans know Indian food as the northern Moghul cuisine of Delhi: butter chicken, lamb korma, all those velvety sauces made for meat and poultry. And more diners have come to love the vegetarian dosas and dals of south India as Udupi Palace and its counterparts have popularized it here. Looking at the menus in most Indian restaurants, it's easy to forget that the subcontinent has nearly 3,000 miles of coastline, and Gajalee is one of the few restaurants in San Francisco dedicated to one corner of it — the southern coastal states of Kerala, Karnataka, and Goa.
The region's cuisine is a surprise even for one well-versed in Indian food. Because an Indian cook wouldn't use the same sauce for lamb and shrimp any more than a French chef would make beef bourguignon with chicken, coastal seafood curries vary from their inland counterparts in spices, vegetables, and preparations. And the curry's complexities are a revelation to Western palates.
When the first dish arrives at the table, it's a shock to find that the curry's spiciness doesn't overpower the fish — its intensity draws out the subtle flavors of the seafood. In fish malvani masala ($13), one of the restaurant's specialties, a pungent, complexly spiced coconut-based curry stood up to the strong, marine essence of tender chunks of sea bass, but never upstaged the fish itself. The same base is used in the shrimp thali ($15) though here the kitchen's 28-spice curry blend is subtler and softer to play up the shrimp's natural sweetness — more cinnamon and cardamom, less mustard seed and caraway. I don't have much tolerance for strong spice and the dish's medium level put my taste buds in near physical pain, but it didn't stop me from finishing off the curry with a spoon after savoring the plump shrimp one by one.
I wondered where those succulent shrimp were a few days later, though, when a return visit brought overcooked, wilted specimens to the table in two different dishes. We mostly ate around the shrimp in the sweet-and-sour ambat tikhat kolambhi ($12) — its warm, chutney-like sauce laden with raw mangoes and tomatoes was that good. But the fruity, ginger-laced shrimp chilly tava appetizer ($9) just sat there, half-eaten and ignored, until the main dishes arrived.
Dishes like ambat tikhat kolambhi get their tang from kokum, a relative of the mangosteen whose dried peel acts as a mild souring agent, like lemon. Those curious about its flavor should order sol kadi ($3), a kokum, coconut, and green chile drink whose pastel pink color disguises a flavor so strong that our waiter warned us against ordering it as first-timers. Sol kadi smells swampy, vegetal, and surprisingly savory (some Indians eat it over rice). A sip starts out sour, then salty and spicy in quick succession, and finally hits you right in the back-of-the-mouth pucker spots. At least on its own. Taken with spicy food its tanginess is tempered, and the drink draws a pleasantly salty blanket over your burning tongue. I'd never had anything like it, and the experience opened up another small piece of the world.
Now for a word on the heat. It won't be a big deal for those of you who keep a bottle of hot sauce in your purse, but the food's spicier than that of most Americanized Indian restaurants, and if you're unsure about how much you can handle I'd order mild the first time around. It isn't an inferno on first bite, but it builds into a slow burn over the course of the meal. Tame it with puffy, fist-sized pieces of rough komdivade bread ($3), a distant relative of whole-wheat pita, or indulge in flaky, fried paratha bread ($2). There's also a tasty-but-saccharine rose lassi ($4), a short beer list that includes Indian favorite Kingfisher, and generous pours of spicy-food-friendly wines, mostly from California.
One test of a seafood restaurant is how well the cooks know their way around a deep fryer — the fish should always speak more loudly than the breading. I'd never had the Indian take on a fish fry, and was rewarded with fish malvani masala ($13), a thin, juicy fillet under a fiery crimson crust that crackled with semolina and rice flour ($12). And if you can't survive a meal without meat, make it the deep-fried chicken 65 ($7), a south Indian bar snack. It's a little like orange chicken in texture, but instead of a cloying sauce there's a zesty chile coating whose redness permeates deep into the boneless chicken chunks, thanks to hours in a tenderizing yogurt marinade.
The biggest downer at Gajalee is the service. Even when the restaurant is near-empty it takes too much time to get your check or order more drinks. But it's worth a few moments of patience for the pleasure of learning about a new side of Indian cuisine and culture, and certainly cheaper and more convenient than a plane ticket. You could devote your life to the study of Indian cuisine and still never master it. Consider this required eating.