It didn’t take too long for Semma to catch the attention of New Yorkers. The South Indian restaurant opened in the dining hotspot West Village in October last year. Within three months, they received a glowing review from The New York Times. Diners lined up for their spicy, rustic food prepared by chef Vijay Kumar. Today, amidst loud cheers, the restaurant received its first Michelin Star.
Semma, by the hospitality group Unapologetic Foods, is the brainchild of US-based restaurateur Roni Mazumdar and chef Chintan Patel. Their impressive roster of restaurants also includes Dhamaka, Adda and The Masalawala. In recent months, they made headlines when Patel was recognised as the best chef in New York by the prestigious James Beard foundation. Their motto is to bring authentic and regional Indian food to the US with restaurants and casual diners.
When they planned to open Semma—a Tamil word which loosely translates to awesome—the partners roped in chef Kumar. He was working with the one Michelin-starred restaurant Rasa in New York then. For the new venture, he created a menu with regional, true-to-roots South Indian dishes. In an interview with Lounge, Kumar said they haven’t retrained the use of spices: “That is our philosophy; we are not changing our recipes. We just want to eat the way we used to eat back home. No compromise on it at all. And, touch wood, 99% of the guests appreciate the fact that we are not cutting down the spices or anything like that.” Kumar, who hails from Tamil Nadu, is now a chef-partner.
The experience is all about ‘fun dining’ not ‘fine dining’. The idea is to experience real flavours of India with little fuss. Dishes like Gunpowder dosas, Dindigul biryani and pessarattu are familiar to Indians, and haven’t been tweaked for western palates. There’s a preparation with snails inspired by chef Kumar’s memories of his grandmother. In the Lounge interview, Mazumdar shared, “When Vijay makes the snails, it is about respecting the way he has grown up. So when you taste the snails, you are also tasting his childhood memories. I think that is the most critical part—it is not always about taking age-old recipes, switching them up, changing ingredients. Our goal is to look back and ask ourselves—how we can be true to where we come from? How can we honour our past?”
Perhaps, it is this approach that defines how Semma disrupted New York’s dining scene and will continue to do so in the future.
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