After a hiatus of a few weeks my slow-motion survey of South Asian restaurants in the Twin Cities metro area starts back up again with this review of a recent dinner at Malabari Kitchen in Minneapolis, which specializes in food from the southern Indian state of Kerala. I am pleased to report that this meal was much better than the previous and did not jeopardize the future of the series. (See here for my review of a lunch at Bawarchi, and here for my review of the Dosa King meal that almost brought this series to an end.) While not everything about the meal and experience was good it’s still a place I would recommend to people interested in exploring Indian food.
Let’s get the bad out of the way first:
Malabari Kitchen is a very tiny space (I think the space once occupied by Chai Thai) and in general operations are fairly amateurish; the online reservations system maxes out at parties of four (as it doesn’t take too many simultaneous diners to max out the space it’s a good idea to call ahead if you want to reserve a larger table); the kitchen seems mostly like a one-man show (as far as I could make out the owner does most of the cooking, assisted by a young man)—as a result, perhaps, food came out fairly randomly (we got half our appetizers after our mains); some things asked for at a high heat level came out mild whereas others asked for mild came out hot; they ran out of rice (!) at 7 pm on a Saturday night; I’m not sure we got everything we were supposed to (more on this below); the menu excitingly listed chapatis but they didn’t have any—the “naan” substituted for this was quite probably from a package.
And now for the good:
The first thing you notice when you look at the not-very-large menu is the complete absence of anything non-Malayali (Malayalam is the language spoken in Kerala and people from the state are known as Malayalis). It’s true that the “specials” chalkboard listed chicken tikka masala, but that seemed to be the one concession to expectations. It is otherwise an uncompromisingly Malayali restaurant. This is highly unusual in the US (and even in North India) and even with their limited menu something to be encouraged and supported. There are any number of nearly-identical North Indian restaurants in every major American city serving the curry house classics and it’s good to see someone swimming against the cream-laden tide of tikka masala and dal makhni.
It may, of course, also be a quixotic move—though I suspect their small size may insulate them from the disappointment of the masses; that is to say, if their business plan allows them to survive with as few tables as they have they should be able to fill them with enough people willing to eat only Malayali food (and the location in the general vicinity of the University of Minnesota, with a decent Indian student population, should help). On this Saturday night they were doing brisk business, and everyone seemed to be ordering off the regular menu.
The food itself was variable. Nothing was close to being bad and some things were quite good; others were decent versions of what they should be, let down by issues of execution (which may, again, be better depending on who is doing the cooking). And while Malayali food can be quite hot, nothing that we asked to be hot was particularly so. Still, on the whole, for interested parties Malabari Kitchen offers a reasonable approximation of a cuisine not often seen in the US (or even in all parts of India), and it seems worthwhile to support it. I don’t know how often I would drive to the cities specifically to eat there but if I were in the vicinity at lunch or dinner time I’d be happy to stop in (for their biryani in particular). If I lived in the cities I would probably be far more likely to eat their take on Malayali food than the generic North Indian fare on offer at most other places.
There were eight of us eating (four adults, one high-schooler, one ten-year old and our two boys). We ordered a fairly large chunk of the menu (click on an image to launch a larger slideshow with captions).
All of this came to $100 with tax and tip. Portion sizes are not large—we didn’t bring any leftovers home—but this is still a pretty good deal. And we didn’t leave hungry (were too full for dessert, in fact).
I will say that the mix-ups with heat level and nuts could have been bad. We asked for the chicken biryani to be mild and without cashews (as one of our boys is allergic). They left the cashews off but the chicken biryani was hot (while the cashew-laden mutton biryani came out mild). It didn’t make a difference on the night as by the time the biryani came out both boys were done eating but in other circumstances this could have been an issue (and at the rate at which the kitchen moves it would not have been a viable option to send it back and wait for a new version). Also, the menu indicates that if you get the entrees with rice it will be accompanied by a thoran (a stir-fry’ish dish with chopped veg)—however, we didn’t receive any (we also weren’t paying attention and I didn’t realize this till we were home). Still, I’m willing to overlook these missteps and the fact that nothing was stellar; not because I’m lowering my standards per se, but because, as I said above, it’s good to have alternatives. Bad North Indian food you can get anywhere in the Twin Cities metro area; decent Malayali food, only here.