The bowl of chicken curry, its fragrance rapidly colonizing the air around us, squats in the middle of the concave flatbread. The presentation looks like a bowl served in a bowl, one edible, the other not. The edible one — a bubbly, yeasted rice pancake called an appam — needs a moment to be admired before you tear into it like a wild jackal.
Often eaten for breakfast in Kerala, a state in South India, an appam has the crispy edges of a dosa but the spongy interior of an uttapam pancake. Its flavors are just as polarized: An appam starts sweet, greeting you with coconut and sugar, before releasing waves of sourness, the result of a long, room-temperature fermentation. The pancake is ideal for scooping up curries, at once tempering their heat and adding an invigorating hit of acid. Think of appams as the Ethiopian injera of South Asia.
The appam dishes are a few of the many attractions at Chettinadu Indian Cuisine, a mango-and-eggplant-colored dining room tucked into yet another faceless strip center along the Route 355 corridor through Rockville. You could argue the appam with chicken curry provides the most clear-eyed perspective on the restaurant’s unusual split personality: The menu here draws heavily on the vegetarian fare of South India but with, well, meat.
Chettinadu Indian Cuisine didn’t spring from the imagination of owners with a flexitarian approach to Hinduism’s standard veg diet, grounded in the religion’s belief that all life is sacred. No, the owners, like the primary cuisine they serve, can trace their roots back to Chettinad, in Tamil Nadu, the state that borders Kerala. But owner Mani Selvam— who also leads the kitchen with fellow chef and co-owner Palani Chinnaiah — is quick to add that the owners are not Chettiars, the caste of once-wealthy traders and entrepreneurs who served as moneylenders in the days before the government instituted a regulated banking system.
Chettiars, historians will tell you, are largely responsible for the diversity of Chettinad cuisine. Chettiars expanded their moneylending practices into territories once controlled by the British Empire, including Sinapore, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and Burma. These migrations would influence the Chettiars, a devout Hindu community that historically adhered to a vegetarian diet. Meat and foreign spices soon crept into their food, fusing into a cuisine that would distinguish itself from others in South India.
One of the cuisine’s defining dishes is Chettinad chicken. The version at Chettinadu comes in an oval dish brimming with a mahogany curry spiked with green cardamom pods and dried chile husks, the aromatics and heat competing with each other for dominance. It has the fevered burn you expect from a South Indian dish but buried in a curry with the full body — and the meat — associated with a North Indian preparation.
Despite multiple chefs in the kitchen, Chettinadu takes a selective approach to its featured cuisine. I have yet to encounter a Chettinad staple called idiyappam, these steamed rice noodles often eaten with spicy curries or coconut milk. Nor have I seen any kozhukattai, the sweet or savory rice-flour dumplings usually served at special occasions. Selvam says these dishes will probably never appear in the tiny, 12-table dining room.
Regardless, I ate extremely well at Chettinadu. The meen kuzhambu, or Chettinad-style fish curry, buzzes with two kinds of pungency: the chile powder incorporated into the thin sauce and the black mustard seeds that bob on its surface. The ennai kathirikkai kuzhambu is a stuffed baby eggplant curry that lulls you with its subtle sweetness — perhaps from jaggery? — before slapping you with spice. The naattu kozhi kuzhambu features a glossy, complex sauce concealing bone-in sections of naturally raised chicken, which gives the entrancing dish its nickname: country chicken curry.
The menu (with English-as-a-second-language constructions like, “Baby goat curry which is in most wanted list”) wanders all over the Indian subcontinent for inspiration. The Punjabi-style paneer makhani features firm cubes of cheese in a silky tomato sauce, an affordable luxury. The prawn biryani, a Hyderabadi specialty with faint echoes of Persia, cloaks its pepper fire with clouds of clove perfume.
Then there are the dosas, parathas, idlies, uttapams and chapatis, a vast selection of flatbreads and pancakes, each requiring its own dough or batter. The lacy, crispy rava dosa practically bursts into flames when dipped into the sambar, while the egg dosa is a rich, sour pancake with an almost imperceptible layer of yolk and egg white on the underside. The dosa’s so good, you may eat it plain, without a single dunk in the accompanying chutneys.
Chettinadu is a lean operation. Service sometimes seems like an option you forgot to order. Your server will interrogate you about heat tolerances, but then ignore you as you sit there, forks long ago in the neutral position, waiting for the check. Flagging down a busy employee can be as difficult as hitching a ride on the interstate.
Now normally, I’m content to linger in a restaurant and nibble on dishes as rewarding as these (even when forced to wash them down with a drink no stronger than a mango lassi). But dawdling at Chettinadu can be a test of your shame reflex: On weekends, waiting customers will often stand at the front of the restaurant, with nowhere to stare but at diners digging into their curries. Perhaps you can blithely squat at a table while pouty children yearn for dinner, but not me. Some nights, I wanted to tackle the nearest server for the check. I can stand almost any amount of chile-pepper pain. What I can’t stand is neglect.
15124 Frederick Rd., Rockville, 301-251-8991, chettinadurocks.com.
Hours: Lunch: 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Tuesday to Friday and 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; dinner: 5 to 10 p.m. Tuesday to Thursday, Sunday; and 5 to 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
Nearest Metro: Rockville, with a 2.5-mile trip to the restaurant.
Prices: $4.99 to $11.99 for soups and appetizers. $7.99 to $14.99 for idly, dosas, parathas, chapati, biryani and curries.