Restaurant Review

CholaNad is not your run-of-the-mill Indian restaurant

CorrespondentAugust 9, 2012 

  • More information CholaNad 308 W. Franklin St., Chapel Hill 919-537-8258 www.cholanad.com Cuisine: Indian Rating: ***1/2 Prices: $$-$$$ Atmosphere: dramatic, contemporary Noise level: moderate Service: eager to please, can be slow when crowded Recommended: tropical beachsidde lentils, whole fish in banana leaf, lamb chops, dosa, thalis (available Friday, Saturday and Sunday) Open: Lunch and dinner daily. Reservations: recommended on weekends Other: full bar; accommodates children; excellent vegetarian selection; parking in lot, valet validation available The N&O’s critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: *  *  *  *  *  Extraordinary *  *  *  *  Excellent. *  *  *  Above average. *  *  Average. *  Fair. The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $16. $$$ Entrees $17 to $25. $$$$ Entrees more than $25.

The moment you walk in, your eye is drawn upward by potted ficus trees and clusters of bamboo stalks as thick as your arm, soaring to a high gabled ceiling. Fading sunset light filters through wall-spanning windows, washing over exotic silver necklaces in black frames, a display worthy of a jeweler’s showcase.

Servers armed with iPods and iPads for taking orders shuttle among the white linen-draped tables and chocolate-brown banquettes that soften the room’s severe angular lines. At one table, a waiter delivers a dosa of prodigious proportions to a party of four. The menu informs you that it’s the Big Bad Tiger dosa, filled with curried lamb and chicken and intended to serve a party of three or four. You have no doubt that it will.

You haven’t even ordered yet, and it’s already clear that CholaNad will spare no gesture in serving notice that it is not your run-of-the-mill Indian restaurant. It won’t take long to discover that there’s plenty of substance to back up all that show.

A starter labeled as “tropical beachside lentils” turns out to be delicately crisp chickpeas tossed in grated coconut, topped with fine julienne threads of mango and served in a paper cone nestled in a wire stand. When executive chef Subash Panneerselvam stops by your table (as he inevitably will), he’ll explain that chickpeas are considered a type of lentil in India. He’ll add that the dish is indeed a popular beachside snack where he comes from, served in paper cones by street vendors. The wire frame is just another CholaNad flourish.

While the names and descriptions of dishes – not to mention the artfully elegant presentations – clearly cater to Westerners, Panneerselvam is quick to point out that his offerings are for the most part authentic renditions of Southern Indian fare. Or, more precisely, the cuisine of the chef’s native Tamil culture, which has for centuries held sway from the southern shores of India across the Bay of Bengal to Southeast Asia.

Evidence of the Tamil influence is woven throughout the menu, from the coconut in a pale jade green chicken curry redolent of cardamom to the sweet-savory delicacy of steamed rice buns.

The appetizer sampler serves up a varied introduction to CholaNad’s offering in the form of assorted vegetable bajji (the Southern Indian name for pakoras), chile-reddened chicken 65, and “eggs and greens rollup,” a sort of exotic vegetarian cross between a crepe and an omelet.

For a much more extensive sampling, schedule your visit for a Friday, Saturday or Sunday, when the chef offers vegetarian and non-vegetarian versions of a thali. Either will cover your table with a rainbow assortment of little dishes too numerous to name here. Highlights of a recent meat-eater’s thali included chicken curry, fish masala, yellow lentil dal spangled with curry leaves and black mustard seeds, and seasonal vegetable dishes featuring beets and cabbage. Served with rice, raita, two kinds of bread and dessert (rice pudding or halwah of the day), CholaNad’s thalis truly live up to their billing as “a reenactment of a Tamil feast.”

Seafood is, as you might expect, well represented. Whole fish (pomfret or red snapper, depending on the catch), marinated in tamarind and spices and steamed in a banana leaf, is well worth the required 20-minute wait. Other temptations include tandoor-roasted masala crab, spice-crusted scallops on sugar candy-sweetened rice, Thai-infused roasted fish, and pan-seared soft-shell crab in a Goan coconut sauce, served with a dosa roll-up.

The only downside to ordering seafood for your entree is the fact that you’ll miss out on some of the best lamb chops around. Don’t let the tandoor-charred bones fool you. The meat on those double bones is a succulent medium rare. And the accompaniment – a savory bread pudding enriched with curry and egg called kothu parota – is an exotic, thoroughly delightful bonus.

Disappointments are infrequent and for the most part minor. Western palates are likely to find that the crabmeat in an appetizer called Crazy Crab Papad is overwhelmed by spices. Chile-chocolate ice cream isn’t nearly as exciting as it sounds.

The servers are unfailingly friendly and eager to please, but don’t expect to be in and out in a hurry. Pacing and the level of attentiveness tend to drop off noticeably when the dining room is full.

Which it frequently is. Less than a year after opening in an area where Indian restaurants abound, CholaNad has clearly succceeded in setting itself apart from the crowd.

ggcox@bellsouth.net or blogs@newsobserver.com/mouthful

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