The restaurant is easy to miss, but once you’re there, Kathakali will be a pleasant surprise with layered flavors from Kerala, the state on India’s southern tip.
If you go looking for Kathakali, you may drive right past it, distracted by the orange construction drums and traffic cones guarding the stand-alone building across from Columbia Athletic Club in Kirkland’s Juanita Bay neighborhood. The sidewalk is nothing but gravel, thanks to a municipal improvement project expected to take several more months. The only signage on the building is a drooping banner that says “coming soon.”
Kathakali opened in April and word-of-mouth is doing a fine job of filling the dining room. I first heard about it from my dermatologist. She’s a vegetarian married to an omnivore. They both like to eat out and they live in the neighborhood. If I lived nearby, I’d be regularly indulging in Kathakali’s dosas and curries.
Husband-and-wife co-owners Ajay Panicker, the chef, and Ramya Balachandran, a friendly, front-of-the-house presence, established a following on the Eastside after opening Aahaar, an Indian restaurant in Snoqualmie, five years ago. The couple met in New Jersey, but both were born in Chennai, in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, as was Srinivasan Anandhakumar, their longtime friend and also a partner in Kathakali.
11451 98th Ave. N.E., Kirkland
Reservations: accepted for dinner only Tuesday-Thursday
Hours: lunch 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 11:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m. Friday-Sunday; dinner 5:30-9:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 5:30-10 p.m. Friday and Sunday, 5:30-9 p.m. Sunday
Prices: $$ (plates $7-$24)
Drinks: Indian and other beers by the bottle; wines by the glass; wild berry lassi, lavender coconut lemonade and other soft drinks
Parking: free lot on site
Credit cards: all major
Access: (temporary rough terrain due to road construction)
Aahaar is a more traditional Indian restaurant than Kathakali, which concentrates on the cuisine and culture of Kerala, the state west of Tamil Nadu on India’s southern tip, a lush, verdant land of rice paddies, coconut groves and spice plantations. Kathakali (accent on the last syllable) is a storytelling form of classical dance in Kerala (accent on the first syllable). Examples of the dancer’s elaborate costumes and masks dress up the restaurant’s white-walled, wood-trimmed interior. A tasseled nettipattam, the forehead ornament worn by elephants during Keralan festivals, hangs opposite the front door, next to a wall of tea lights in Mason jars that evokes in a small way the thousands of candles illuminating Kerala’s 5,000-year-old Guruvayoor temple.
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Kerala has been central to the spice trade for millennia. In his interpretations of this exuberantly flavorful cuisine, Panicker wields a large arsenal that includes green chilies, peppercorns, cumin, coriander, mustard and fennel seed, cardamom, turmeric and tamarind, just to name a few.
In a well-made curry, you can detect layers of flavors that usually start with toasting the myriad spices. This complex, aromatic base rounds the peppery heat. The best sauces here — and there are many — unfold like a blossom in the mouth. You discover something different in every bite.
This was as true for the bright, tart, ruddy sauce of Kerala chicken curry, as it was for mutton varattiyathu, cubed lamb submerged in dark, brown gravy rippling with ginger, cumin, curry leaf and fennel. Vegetarian curries include eggplant kootan, in which the eggplant’s soft, charred flesh mingles with red chilies, tamarind, tomato and lots of garlic — a curry for baba ganoush fans.
These are forthrightly spicy dishes. For something less explosive, try green mango fish curry. Coconut milk gentles the green-chile heat in the thick, creamy sauce. The slightly sour fruit counters the strong flavor of mackerel, a particularly oily fish.
Kerala’s long coast line means seafood figures prominently in the cuisine. Several dishes here feature tilapia, a fish I don’t usually care for. Its muddy taste is well masked, however, in the extremely pungent Kerala meen curry, made with kodampuli, a special type of dried tamarind they import just for this dish. Meen pollichathu, sea bass smothered in thick masala paste, is pan-fried in a banana leaf. It’s a beautiful package, but the fish was very firm and the sauce lacked the nuance that distinguished the curries.
There are other nifty bits of packaging. For chemeen vada, whole shrimp are embedded in deep-fried lentil and rice-flour fritters. They have a texture like falafel and flecks of mint complement the heat. Chicken tikka naan is a flatbread stuffed quesadilla-like with minced seasoned meat and onion. It’s served cut into wedges with a smooth, buttery tomato dipping sauce that I could have eaten happily with a spoon. The same tomato sauce accompanied tandoori chicken, a notably moist leg and thigh joint.
Dosas are the most eye-catching bundles. You’ll see one on almost every table. The large wraps are indigenous to South India where it’s often breakfast food. They are crepe-like pancakes made with a lentil and rice-flour batter that are lightly browned and delicately crisp, yet pliant enough to roll and fill. Basil and spinach pesto was spread inside one dosa, filled with masala-spiced potatoes. Another was packed with minced green jackfruit and coconut. My goal is to try them all.
Though you can use a knife and fork, traditionally you tear and eat a dosa with your hands, scooping up some mint or tomato chutney along the way to your mouth. “In all of India we eat with our hands,” Balachandran told me in a phone interview. That includes idiyappam, or string hoppers. Balls of steamed rice are pressed through a sieve to make the thin, noodle-like strands. Topped with grated coconut and dipped in coconut milk, they have a comforting blandness that stands out amid so many scorching flavors.
Bread is another utensil for conveying food. Here they make naan, kulcha, puri and roti, but my favorite was the Malabar parotta that pulls apart in lacy striations like a croissant. Steamed basmati rice accompanies all the curries, but consider biryani, rice mixed with nuts, herbs and spices. You can incorporate a protein if you wish. I loved the clove and cinnamon percolating through a biryani with shrimp.
So, Doc, if you’re reading this: Thanks for the tip. You and hubby should definitely plan on a date night at Kathakali.