An Indian Dynasty

| September 12, 2012

The Chola dynasty was one of the longest-ruling in southern India. The earliest datable references to this Hindu empire are in inscriptions from the 3rd century BC and their rule continued to reign over varying territory until the 13th century AD.

In terms of the average shelf life of a Manhattan eatery, Chola Restaurant is following the same trend and after 12 years of serving great Indian food to residents, businessmen and tourists in Midtown East, Chola has maintained its spot as a top Indian dining spot. With an interminable menu consisting of dishes from almost every region of India, our experience at Chola was one to be remembered.

Described as “Indian Restaurant Breaks the Mold,” by The New York Times and conversely “Best Traditional Indian Restaurant” by New York Magazine, what to expect can be a little confusing. Antithetical terminologies aside, the simple fact is that the food is fabulous. A testament to this fact is the steady stream of celebrity clientele including Harrison Ford, Chaka Khan, Aishwarya Rai, Woody Allen, Amitabh Bachan, Anthony Hopkins and many other Hollywood and Bollywood celebrities.

It certainly seems that Shiva Natarajan has the Midas touch. This being the third restaurant of his that Varli Magazine has reviewed; it just seems to get better and better. Greeted by a wall of water, you step down into an elegant dining area bustling with activity. With walls color- blocked with eggplant, vermilion, lime and yellow, contemporary artwork and antique chandeliers throughout, the ambiance is warm and eclectic.

We decided to experience the lunch service at Chola and upon entering, found it difficult to walk past the incredible aromas dancing around the buffet table, which just so happens was voted “best buffet” by Zagat’s. Sticking with our original plan to dine from the a la carte menu we soldiered past and the delivery of the amuze bouche in the form of an eggplant pakora returned the cochola restaurantnfidence of our decision. Offering 10 wines by the glass, 11 beers, champagne and specialty cocktails like the Madras Monsoon (strawberry vodka, melon liqueur, lime juice, garnished with mint) and the Ripe Mango Martini (vodka, mango liqueur, fresh mango and lime), a tantalizing beverage to start our meal was assured.

The cuisine of Chola, which includes a number of hard-to-find dishes from the southern regions of India, is on par with the top Indian restaurants. The menu is extensive and staying with the times, thoughtfully features many vegetarian and vegan options. The Tamarind Eggplant (tamarind, chaat masala and fresh coriander) was delivered in the form of thin slices of eggplant fanned out like carpaccio over the plate and drizzled with the sweet tamarind sauce. Effective in getting our appetites fired up, we were well prepared for the Kurkhiri Okra (crispy okra, red onions, chat masala, lime and cumin). This okra dish decimates any other use of this vegetable on the planet and is completely addictive. There is a new kid on the block whom you will certainly be introducing to your friends and will undoubtedly keep you coming back for more.

Compelling menu sections include Chaat Bazaar (street side starters), Iyer and Iyengars Trolley (served with chutnies and sambhar), Low Fat Stir Fry Cooking and the Vindaloo Club. However, our next stop on the tour of Chola was South Indian Specialties. Dishes like the Savitri Amma’s More Kozambhu (pumpkin, okra, buttermilk, mustard seeds and curry leaves) which receives a ‘must try’ recommendation from the restaurateur and the Marapaki Kodi (roasted coconut, onions, curry leaves and Andhra masala) are somewhat of a rare sight and absolutely delicious
Moving on, it was time to try some of the standards from the north. The Saag Paneer had a quality that was extraordinarily unique–dressed with julienned ginger that added a textural and aromatic twist, made this a wonderful interpretation. The Chicken Tikka Masala and the vegan Aloo Gobi, classic—perfect. It was time to explore the treats coming forth from the tandoor. The tandoori selections, all perfectly seasoned and cooked to perfection included Chicken Malai Kabob, Tabac Maz (lamb chops), Shrimp Mast Mast and Chicken Tikka. Served over a bed of julienned vegetables, this decadent platter was an absolute delight and might actually tempt a vegetarian to cross over to the dark side. To finish our meal we stayed on the traditional side and indulged in the warm Galub Jamun and the always pleasing Kheer.

From Westport, Connecticut, to Lee, Massachusetts, to the island of Manhattan, restaurateur and visionary Shiva Natarajaran keeps planting his roots in locations where they take hold and thrive. He seems to have a knack for procuring the top Indian chefs to effectively manage his empire and keep his many loyal fans with a smile on their face.