When I visited Kerala, I was enchanted by the atmospheric Backwaters and laid-back lifestyle. I also fell in love with the food, which was a revelation: appam, dosas, sambar, and of course, coconut milk and curry leaves in just about every dish. Nowadays, south Indian fast foods like idli and dosas are widely available, but home cooking of the sort I’d been treated to in the south, remains elusive. South Indian coastal cuisine adds the cooking of Andra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka to the mix.

Preparing fish moilee at Philipkutty Farms, Kerala

Thanks to Zambar, an expanding chain of upscale restaurants, diners in northern India can now experience the home cooking of Kerala and three other southern coastal states. At Zambar, a first-rate kitchen is being developed under the tutelage of chef Arun Kumar, a former filmmaker and journalist with a passion for home-style cooking and a flair for getting his message across.

Zambar’s appam: puffy in the middle; paper-thin edges

Chef Kumar’s menus and preparation methods showcase the variety and subtle differences of his native Kerala, as well as Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka. Everything is created from scratch (no prepared curries here), adapted using produce that is readily available, and above all, featuring simple preparation methods.

“Our methods really are as my grandmother would do things in her kitchen,” he told me, inviting me to relive–and broaden–my foodie travels in Kerala and Tamil Nadu through a meal at Sambar’s Vasant Kunj location.

Dinner at Zambar began with an appetizer of spiced gram keerai  vada, served with four chutneys and a tangerine mojito mocktail of orange juice and limca, muddled with lemon chunks and mint. A glass of rasam followed, before a stunner of a main course: a seafood thali orchestrated by Mr. Kumar. In small bowls on a circular tray, eight dishes from four states piqued my tastebuds, presented with a generous portion of rice (thank you, I grew up in the Texmati rice belt!).

The thali was a marvel of distinctive flavors, but none overpowered; spices were subtle and complementary. Highlights: a lightly spiced fish moilee with coconut milk, and a fragrant Malabar curry (Kerala); garlicky Malvani fish curry and tawa fish fry  (Karnataka); perfectly seasoned prawn thokku (Tamil Nadu); and a tangy fish curry (Andra Pradesh). The meal concluded with a sampler of four traditional south Indian desserts. All were good, but I’m still dreaming about the crème-brulee-like coconut and jaggery pudding, served with a shot glass of jaggery syrup for drizzling.

Welcoming me to Zambar, Zamir Khan of Zambar’s management team had told me that “Anyone entering this restaurant is a guest in my home”. “India’s food scene is changing”, he continued, “and food lovers are entering the restaurant business.”

With Mr. Kumar on board, that certainly looks to be the case. Before my trip, I had hoped for time in the kitchen with him, but the press of launching a new menu in a few days’ time made that impossible. So, learning from this chef with “a hand for the stove and a sense for the kitchen” will have to wait for another time, another visit.

In the meantime, here’s what another blogger has to say about Zambar. And if you’re in the neighborhood, be sure to sample the new menu, launched with fanfare at the end of February.

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