In India, kolam is the decorative practice of stenciling rice-flour patterns on the ground. In Newtown, Kolam is a restaurant, one that evokes that art form in a combination of geometric designs that color its dark velour wall coverings and valances.
Kolam, which opened in 2003 and is one of seven Indian restaurants operated by the Coromandel group, also makes an art of combining nuts, complex spices and yogurt- and ghee-based sauces, often with sumptuous results. Its menu provides an excellent introduction to the regional diversity of India's food, touching down in places that span the subcontinent from the Goa coast north to Kashmir, with plenty of Punjabi, Bengali, Keralan and Gujarati options in between.
One of the more notable items that we tried over several visits was kozhi Chettinad, an entree associated with the state of Tamil Nadu, in southern India. An abundance of black pepper contributed agreeable fieriness to this chicken dish, with its lip-tingling heat mitigated by a velvety-smooth texture, and undertones of tamarind, ginger and vanilla. Nilgiri kozhi, which also featured moist chunks of chicken breast, was milder but just as delightful, with a moderate presence of chili peppers and a creamy consistency, colored green from a generous harvest of cilantro and curry leaves.
Appetizers include a puduvai seafood dish. Wendy Carlson for The New York Times
Of the lamb entrees, we found mamsam koora, a dish with origins in the city of Hyderabad, in southeastern India, to be a wonderful choice. It is a luscious curry heavily accented with sesame seeds, bell peppers, cardamom and just a hint of cashews. The lamb, as full-flavored as mutton, was surprisingly tender and reasonably lean.
More tender still, and a tad less gamy, were the Chameli chops, a quartet of cuts with rib bone attached. Flash-fired in a tandoori oven and delivered on a sizzling skillet with a heaping farrago of succotash-like vegetables, the chops offered subtle influences of yogurt, mace, lemon and nutmeg. Juxtaposed with this fine example of Kashmirian seasoning was an accompanying masala sauce, based on tomatoes, that was orange in color and as sweet as honey.
Though the sauce was extraneous with the lamb, it might have come in handy with Samundari toofan, which had also been prepared in the tandoori oven. Although moist and flaky, this entree's seven sizable slabs of salmon were spiced with a barely discernible mixture of ginger, white pepper and saffron. Vindaloo, normally one of the hotter items offered in Indian restaurants, was similarly lackluster in the shrimp version, largely because its sweet, tangy red sauce was neither very spicy nor reflective of much complexity.
The chicken dishes include nilgiri kozhi. Wendy Carlson for The New York Times
Among the vegetarian choices, Kolam dal, a lentil dish, suffered from a runniness that verged on being insipid, despite a harmonious blend of cumin, garlic and ginger. Far more successful was the paneer kadai jugalbandi, consisting of a mildly flavorful house-made cheese, cut into rectangles and first seared on a skillet, then combined, in a tamarind-infused sauce, with a potpourri of peppers, onions and mushrooms.
Tamarind graces a number of appetizers, too, most notably katta-meeta bainsan, in which thinly sliced discs of eggplant, dipped in a delicate tempura-like batter and deep fried to a wonderfully crisp degree, were painted with a dark, sweet-sour sauce. The tamarind influence in puduvai seafood was mitigated by garlic and zesty pepper, those ingredients contributing a degree of nuance to a beautiful medley of squid and bite-size bits of shrimp. And Chennai rasam, a south Indian soup, was as thin as consommé and both tangy-sour and lemony-tart, with a mildly peppery aftertaste.
Mysore dosa, another starter, is commonly served at breakfast in India. With a crispy, paper-thin crepe protruding from both ends of the platter, Kolam's version looked sensational. Unfortunately, the scant filling of tired potatoes and wizened peas, paired with a bland sambar, undercut that first impression. Also disappointing was the Himalayas-inspired Gobi lasuni, its deep-fried cauliflower florets lost amid too much breading.
When it comes to dessert, it's best to skip such Western offerings as the dense, pasty cheesecake dubbed mango madness, and stick to the subcontinent. Rasmalai, a Bengali specialty, and paal payasam, of Tamil origin, share a reliance on sweetened condensed milk. In the rasmalai, it was flavored with pistachio and served as a medium for a pair of feathery-light cheese balls; the cardamom-infused paal payasam, a rice pudding, was studded with sultanas and cashews. Best of all may be gajar ka halwa, involving jaggery-sweet carrots reduced with milk, ghee and raisins.