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Restaurant Openings and Buzz


Hemant Manthur, the tandoori master at Tamarind, has packed his tools and found a new oven at Amma. He's also found a new partner, Suvir Saran, a highly respected caterer, teacher and consultant, and a new mission, to make some serious southern Indian food.

The menu makes a point of identifying where each dish originates and what's in it, with a little bragging here and there. The basil chicken that comes from the tandoor oven, with tomato chutney and lemon rice on the side, is listed as free-range. Hefty prawns, also grilled in the oven, had their passport stamped in Sri Lanka.

Two $50 tasting menus, one of them vegetarian, are a kind of manifesto for the restaurant and its ambitions. They offer a dizzying procession of eight courses, winding up with the same dessert, a rich and creamy mango cheesecake.

Bombay bhel puri is a good starting point. It's a heap of crisp rice puffs tangled up with coriander, red onion and potatoes. Mint and tamarind chutneys add an appetite-sharpening sweet and sour element. Idly upma, spongy rice-flour dumplings sprinkled with mustard seeds and scented with curry leaves, serve as a welcome antidote to some of the more powerful, spicy dishes.

There are a couple of other cooling agents, too, notably raita, a yogurt condiment flavored here with little rounds of crisp fried okra.

Lassi, an Indian smoothie flavored with salt or mango, also puts out the fire, although the dishes at Amma emphasize rich, concentrated flavors and beguiling spice combinations rather than pure heat.

Two of the more exciting tandoor entrees are chicken legs stuffed with pilaf and eggplant pickle, and lamb filets wrapped around an apricot-fennel stuffing. The lamb is served with lemon rice, one of three flavored rices sold as a side dish. The other two are tomato and mint.

Flat breads, besides the usual naan and paratha, include an exceptional kulcha, or fried bread, stuffed with crabmeat.

Amma, a modest little restaurant on a charmless block, is easy to pass by without noticing. That would be a serious error.

By William Grimes

Amma, 246 East 51st Street, Manhattan; (212) 644-8330.
Dinner entrees, $12 to $28.

Published: 10 - 24 - 2003 , Late Edition - Final , Section E , Column 3 , Page 40


I want to try Indian food I've never tasted.
Amma takes on sophisticated airs with its own sommelier and a duo of new chef-partners in the kitchen-gifted tandoori veteran Hemant Mathur (from Diwan Grill and Tamarind) and my friend Suvir Saran, with a preview from his book-in-progress on Indian home cooking. Saran first became obsessed with food in his grandmother's New Delhi kitchen, where the cooks did the Mughal food of Lucknow. The fabulous slivers of eggplant pickle that spike savory stuffed chicken legs, peppery fried spinach with mung beans, and the sweet-and-sour pear chutney with lamb chops are his memories of home. But other corners of India are heard from in street snacks: Bombay's crispy bel puri and the south's steamed idli dumplings sautéed with curry, mustard seed, and coconut. We're wild for fiery Manchurian cauliflower, elegant stuffed vegetables, and the samosa tasting plate with its rainbow of condiments. Salmon is rare at the heart, with torrid tomato chutney. Clever fusion brings kulfi in citrus soup and mango cheesecake for dessert. Order à la carte, or choose the $50 seven-course tasting, $85 paired with Josh Wesson's wine choices.
246 East 51st Street

Amma, an Indian restaurant with a difference
Sameness is too often the curse of Indian restaurants. The cookie-cutter menus, the heightened formality, the buffets, the décor — the list can go on and on. Luckily, some Indian restaurants realize the problem and make an effort to depart from the formula, if only a little bit. I can't really say that Amma, a sweet little restaurant that opened recently on East 51st Street, shakes things up. But it tweaks the routine just enough to warrant curiosity. The pale mustard walls and salmon-coral banquettes are inviting, an improvement on the usual brass, dark wood and beads. And though the menu is largely familiar, Amma, taking a cue from Indian-fusion restaurants like Tamarind, serves main courses on individual plates, with nan, rice and vegetables, rather than family style.

This may seem like a small touch, but it was welcome. And though the menu breaks no new ground, the precise seasoning and spicing help some of the old dishes come alive. A lamb shank came in a brilliantly tangy tomato and onion sauce, while lamb Chettinad offered a parade of spicy flavors: cumin, mustard seed and plenty of black pepper. The excellent flavor of crisp-textured okra dominated an okra-potato blend, and even the old war horse, chicken tikka masala, was unexpectedly lively. But chicken Madras, billed on the menu as "the hot one," was simply the tikka masala with a few chilies tossed on top, like Chinese takeout.

The service is genial, and the rosewater lassi actually tastes and smells of rosewater. That's a pleasant change. --

Eric Asimov, From The Times, 9/27/02

Time Out New York… 2003 Eating and Drinking Guideth 2002

2003 Eating and Drinking Guide
Amma tastefully fills the gap between Curry Row-style cheap eats and pricey Indian fusion. Named for the Hindi word for “mother,” it offers carefully prepared home cooking, served in a softly lit room with mustard walls and orange ultra suede banquettes. On the menu are standards like moist, subtly flavored jumbo shrimp from the tandoor or spicy chicken vindaloo; more complex dishes include lamb cooked in a spot-on cardamom sauce, spiced to order. Portions are generous, so its easy to overdo it with the appetizers, especially the addictive Bombay Behru, small lentil, corn and rice fritters mixed with chopped tomatoes, onions and a sweet sauce. Don’t skip desert: Everyone at the table will want more that just a bite of the fried cheese balls soaked in delectable cardamom flavored syrup.

The excellent Amma offers elegant Indian dining that eschews fusion

Mama’s Food Never Had It So Good
The restaurant Amma takes its name from the Hindi word for mother. Amma is a small elegant and exciting new restaurant that will appeal to folks who don’t take to the traditional Indian family dining experience, but will also please dedicated aficionados.

The design, by the owners wife, is a jewel-box setting: orange banquet seats against mustard – colored walls – hung with framed silk collages – loads of blond wood and a centerpiece of a spiraling chandelier.

What makes Amma a unique dining experience is not only its exquisitely executed food but its presentation, which abandons the traditional family-style, all-at-once service of several small dishes in favor of a single serving plate, Western-style, consisting of ones chosen entrée accompanied by nan (Indian bread), rice and vegetables. Appetizers are also plated.

While the food is intense, pure, and somewhat contemporary, bless Vishnu, it is also not fusion – no decorative dots, drizzles or dabs.

Start with two terrific seafood appetizers: crawfish cooked in turmeric and chilies, and shrimp sautéed in garlic mustard sauce.

Bombay bhel, a play on Indian street food that has found its way around Manhattan menus in the past few years, is excellent at Amma. Entrees are no less rewarding. Lamb shank is huge, succulent, and bathed in an aromatic sauce of onions, tomatoes and spices.

The most extraordinary dish is simply called “chicken in black pepper sauce.” Think of steak au poivre, substitute moist chicken breast, add a couple of secret ingredients and you have the picture.

The wine list is uninspired, and pricey; the service, under the direction of Manager Vincent Certa, is excellent. Stick with scotch, brandy or beer (which work better anyway), and you will have a feast that any Indian mama would endorse at Amma.

By J. Walman

Wholesome fare and unobtrusive service at Amma makes Arthur J Pais feel at home

Devendra Sharma enjoyed eating out and watching movies in Chennai for many years before he migrated to the west to go in the food commodities business. For him starting a restaurant was a long nurtured dream.

“The restaurant business is too risky, I have known it for along time,” says Sharma, talking of his success of his four-month old Manhattan restaurant Amma. “But for years my wife Anju and I had dreamt of a cozy restaurant in New York that served fine Indian food. We decided to we will have a small place where individual attention is given and the food will have to be freshest.”

Anju adds, “We named it Amma because we want to offer the kind of wholesome food our mothers would be proud of.”

Amma, which seats 40, does not overwhelm you like many new desi restaurants. Unlike many Indian restaurants, the décor here is subdued. There are no touristy pictures from India. In more than one sense, you fell at home here amid the pale mustard walls and intimate atmosphere.

“Size is a reason we don not offer a buffet,” Sharma says. “This is like a boutique restaurant. Besides, people who come to a buffet two hours after it has opened do not always get the best.”

Amma has received enviable media attention, including from the New York Times, Time Out, and New York Magazine. It gets high marks for its pleasant appearance, courteous service, and imaginative lunch menu.

But the kitchen has to refine itself. It is not enough anymore to serve well-prepared dishes in a city like New York. The Haldi Chili Fish, looked intriguing for and appetizer. But it could have used some extra zest.

What one looks for in a restaurant, especially New York, are the kind of dishes which, as they say in the south, are so wonderful that ones tongue slaps the brain after the first bite. Amma does boast a few such dishes including lamb Chettinad, with succulent meat and a strong peppery touch. The roasted eggplant served in a half and eggplant shell was a standout dish. It was gently spiced and was at once aromatic. While lamb – including some of the chicken dishes are far above average, the seafood dishes need serious help. They are among the many that need the help of a bold and adventurous, but surer hand.

Among the several good bargains at Amma are the takeout lunches, $6.95 for the vegetarian and $7.95 each for the chicken and lamb boxes. The lunch special includes an appetizer, entrée, saffron rice, naan, salad, relishes and chutneys, and dessert, packaged at reasonable $12.95. The non-vegetarian lunch platter ($14.95) offers a choice of meat and fish and dosa or idli. One the subject of southern delicacies, the Sambhar and chutneys here are far better than the ones found at many New York restaurants.

The appetizers range in price from $4.95 for the samosas to $9.95 for Jingra Bhaghela, shrimp sautéed in garlic mustard sauce. While the veggie items go for about $16.95 – including rice, bread, and salad – in the evening, chicken preparations for dinner start around $20.95.

The best way to get acquainted with Amma is to sample a few signature dishes at lunch and then return a few days later for dinner.

Enjoy your favorite dishes and discover yet another interesting dish. Do no hesitate to make your wishes or suggestions known. The small staff is enthusiastic about the quality of the food without ever becoming overbearing.

INDIA ABROAD,October 18, 2002