Gandhi: A Keralan Kiss Amiss - The Reykjavik Grapevine

Gandhi: A Keralan Kiss Amiss

Photos by
Art Bicnick

Published August 4, 2015

Gandhi

Pósthússtræti 17, 101 Reykjavík
Mon-Thurs 17-22, Fri-Sat 17-22:30
What we think
Regional cuisine that isn’t tapping into its potential, instead focusing on crowd-pleasers. Their menu should match their advertising.
Flavour
Indian, with a supposedly South Indian focus.
Ambiance
Cosy and warm.
Service
Friendly and earnest. The staff really need training with the dishes on offer.
Price for 2 (no drinks)
11,000—20,000 ISK

The popularity of Indian food is a wonderful contradiction. Everyone seems to love it, however, few seem to really know it. Given the country’s vast diversity, its various regional cuisines still await their moment to shine. While each region is distinctive in its use of spices, for instance, the familiar creamy korma from the north has clearly conquered the Western world, while the lighter, simpler, often fiery fare of the southern regions tends to be under- and mis- represented by restaurants professing to serve “Indian food.” Continuing on that note, attaching the name of an Indian city to a dish does not make it authentic (Bombay potatoes and Madras chicken, anyone?).

Bearing that in mind, trying the South Indian (Keralite) food at Gandhi seemed an obvious choice. Aside from the Ayurvedic wellness spas, the Kerala region is known for its cuisine, which leans heavily on coconut, seafood and fresh vegetables. Kerala has a unique history, with a Jewish, Arabic and Portuguese heritage—and the world’s only black pepper exchange! Indeed, that once-precious black gold is native to the region.

Gandhi opens early for dinner service. We were the first diners to arrive that night, and were greeted warmly. The place is cosy, and they have done a good job of converting their basement space into a cheery little restaurant. After much deliberation, we decided to try the Keralite menu (5,500 ISK), since the à la carte seemed to have only two or three Keralite dishes on offer, along with a generous smattering of the usual suspects. We also ordered some pakodas (1,570 ISK) to graze on while we awaited the main course.

The pakodas and poppadoms (a nod to the more British poppadom, rather than to appalam or papad slightly annoys and/ or amuses me) were paired with a mint chutney and a superlative mango chutney consisting of fresh mangoes blitzed with a hint of ginger and mint. I suspect this was a true chutney, in that it was freshly ground, rather than a pickle masquerading as chutney. My mother-in-law absolutely loved it, too—actually, it was the highlight of the meal for us (I’d like that recipe, please!).

From that point on, things went downhill. The restaurant was filling up, the service started lagging, and the food ultimately proved a touch disappointing. While tasty in its own right, what we were served was far from the Kerala tasting menu we envisioned (I must admit that the set menu described by our waitress sounded suspiciously generic—what is “Madras chicken” again?!—but I had put that down to language difficulties).

Gandhi by Art Bicnick

As a nod to tradition, we were served a fish curry, stir-fried shrimp, a vegetable kootu, chicken curry, dal, naan, rice and raita. Steinbítur (“North-Atlantic Wolffish”) is an excellent choice for curries, but this fish curry lacked the sour, fiery punch one typically associates with the style. Nonetheless, it was a good rendition.

The chicken curry was a rather generic offering, and the dal too watery and insipid. On previous occasions, I must note, we have enjoyed excellent dal at Gandhi. The vegetable kootu (korma as they call it) had sweet potatoes and rutabagas, making for a fairly authentic rendition of the staple.

The shrimp dish was the best part of our meal: good-sized shrimp, stir fried with onions and tomatoes, and generous doses of fresh grated ginger. Just this, with rice, kootu and papad, would satisfy any true-blue Malayali. A glaring omission from the tasting we sampled, however, were the curry leaves, a distinctive finishing touch that we sorely missed.

The naan, though excellent in its own right, seemed out of place. Appams or pathiris (lacy edged pancakes from a fermented rice batter, or rice flour flatbreads) would have been more appropriate.

We ended the meal with an excellent carrot halwa (complementary, since the kitchen did not have enough to make for a full serving) and creme brulée (1,290 ISK). Do try the halwa. It’s not too sweet: think a warm, buttery, cardamom-scented carrot fudge. This was our ticket home.

It is understandable from a business point of view that the butter chicken and similar crowd-pleasers are what most people expect from an Indian restaurant, since it is familiar and popular. But when you poise yourself as a South Indian restaurant, why not deliver that? South Indian/Keralite cuisine would be an invaluable addition to the Reykjavík dining scene. Today’s average diner is adventurous and ready, more than ever. Give us that delicate moilee (fish simmered in a turmeric and fresh coconut milk curry), the coconut oil tempered avial (assorted veggies with yoghurt and ground coconut), the star anise-scented chicken stew and the fiery beef fries.

Sure, the naan sells. But so can the appams.

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