We don’t often venture out of Edison, N.J for Indian food but, some months ago, we were invited out by friends . We had dinner at Anjappar restaurant in North Brunswick and really relished the food. That memory re-surfaced when we were deciding where to lunch on the last day of 2011. We had been disappointed with recent meals at Karaikudi so that the idea of re-visiting Anjappar took hold. It was a good choice. Anjappar calls itself the best Chettinad restaurant around and I , for one , am not going to dispute the claim.
A little history, first.
Chettinad cuisine is the cuisine of the Chettiars who live in the Chettinad district of Tamil Nadu in South India. The Chettiars are an adventurous lot ; many of them amassed fortunes in the 19th and early 20th centuries as moneylenders and financiers in Malaya ( modern Malaysia). They brought their riches back to Chettinad and built palatial houses distinguished by ornate, many pillared verandahs and a central courtyard. They also brought back a liking for spices . Chettinad food is determinedly non-vegetarian ( an anomaly in South India) and uses copious amounts of black pepper , cinnamon, cloves , cumin, red chillies , fennel and bay leaf ; it also uses the less common star anise and stone flower( dagadphool). It makes use of dried and salted vegetables and many Chettinad dishes are topped by a fried egg.
Anjappar Chettinad is part of a restaurant chain founded in Madras in 1964 by a Mr. Anjappar who got his start as a personal chef to MGR ( M.G.Ramachandran , an icon of Tamil films). Today there are over 30 Anjappar restaurants worldwide at locations that include Sri Lanka, Singapore, Malaysia, U.A.E, Dubai, Canada and , of course, the U.S.( Dallas, Bay area, New York and N.J). In New Jersey there are two, the one in North Brunswick and another ,smaller, one in Edison itself.
Anjappar, North Brunswick is located in a strip mall on U.S 130 North. It consists of two large dining rooms furnished in ” Generic Indian Restaurant Mode” with formica topped tables and minimal decor. It is functional and not ornate ,which is fine with me since I am there for the food . The afternoon that we were there the place filled up rapidly. Almost all the other diners were South Indians , a good portent for the authenticity of the food.
Since we were a party of seven we decided to share the dishes, family style ,and thus try as many dishes from the menu as we could. We started out with mutton bone soup which was pleasantly tangy unlike at other Chettinad restaurants where the cooks are too free with the spices. Here it was like a spicy rasam made with mutton stock and it was a good start to the meal. For appetizers we had two vegetarian dishes , Gobi 65 and Onion Pakodas ,and shared two Specials of the day, Egg Uthappam and Kheema Dosa.We’d had the Gobi 65 and the Pakoras on our previous visit and they were as good as we remembered. The Gobi 65 consists of cauliflower florets marinated in yoghurt and a mixture of spices ( allegedly 65 different ones , hence the name ) and deep-fried . Both it and the pakoras were crisp, greaseless and yummy. The egg uthappam was a bit of a disappointment and I’d have preferred a regular onion uthappam . The eggy batter made the uthappam fluffy but didn’t do much else. The kheema dosa , a crisp pancake rolled around spiced chopped goat meat, was a novelty but nothing special.
For main dishes we tried the mutton curry, pepper chicken , fish curry and crab masala.Along with them we had tandoori rotis , rice , yoghurt and onion raita.Except for the pepper chicken, the spicing for which was lackluster,all the dishes were very good . I liked the mutton curry the best . It was flavorful and very spicy but not overwhelmingly so and the meat was tender . I didn’t have any of the crab masala but those who did said it was terrific. It consisted of king crab legs cooked in a spicy gingery Chettinad masala . Watching the others crack open the king crab legs to get the last morsels of meat , I wished I’d saved some space for it and not eaten as much of the mutton curry. All the curries were served in stainless steel vessels with lids while the uthappam and the masala dosa came on stainless steel compartment plates, thus adding to the authenticity of he meal.
Knowing what I do now, I’d have steered clear of the pepper chicken and instead tried some of the dishes we saw being served at the adjoining tables. Perhaps the Pondu Kuzhambu (Garlic cooked in a spicy tamarind sauce ) or Kathrikkai Kuzhambu( Curried oil roasted eggplants) or the Mutton Biryani. They all looked delicious. From previous experience , I can vouch for the thali or combination platter , both vegetarian and non-vegetarian. The vegetarian thali consists of rice, chappathi, sambar, rasam, kootu, poriyal, pickle, curd, pappad and sweet. It’s a filling meal and the sambar and poriyal are delicious. In the non-vegetarian thali, the sweet is replaced by a portion of non-veg, mutton, chicken or fish according to your choice.
We were pretty full by this time but tried out two dishes from the limited dessert menu, pineapple rava kesari and kulfi. These are restaurant standards , difficult to botch but impossible to hit for a home run . At Anjappar, they were competently executed. Overall, the meal was better than I’ve had at any other Chettinad restaurant in N.J and I’ve been to a few.If you want to check out the restaurant and the menu, please click here: www.anjapparusa.com/about.
P.S Friends who have been to Anjappar Express, the Edison location of Anjappar, tell us that it is small place meant mostly for takeout. If you want to dine out , you would be well advised to drive to North Brunswick.
What I’ve written is an honest account of our experience at Anjappar. While I’m not an expert , I like to think that I’ve eaten at enough restaurants , Indian and non-Indian , to know what is good and what is not. I am dismayed by some of the diners “reviews “that I read about Anjappar which slam the food , the service and everything else. I’ve seen this happen with other restaurants too and can only conclude that they are written by other restaurant owners with a vested interest in running down the competition.Don’t trust everything you read .Anyone with access to a computer can write what he wants, secure in his anonymity.If the menu appears interesting to you , check out the restaurant for yourself and make up your own mind.
There was another Chettinad restaurant in the vicinity, in Franklin Park, that I’d wanted to try. Ponnuswamy, like Anjappar, is part of a restaurant chain that started out in Chennai. Unfortunately, it closed down before I could sample it..