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NYC

Review

David A. Lee

Semma

$$$$
David A. Lee

We’d guess the majority of New York City adults felt like lost, pre-pubescent sloths throughout 2021. Some of us fell out of touch with certain friends. Others considered never stepping foot in loud, crowded bars again. But at least the team behind Semma had a good year. After opening Dhamaka on the LES, they unveiled Semma, an exceptional Indian restaurant where their old West Village spot Rahi used to be. If you’re ever feeling sloth-like, stop by, and have an exciting night out here.

Semma serves South Indian regional specialties typically made in rural home settings, and they do so in a narrow space with quintessential wooden-table West Village charm. Vegetarian highlights include a crispy uttappam filled with seasonal root vegetables, crunchy, chili-flecked Mangalorean cauliflower, and a masala-potato-filled gunpowder dosa that tastes like cheese even though there’s none present. No meal at Semma would be quite right, however, without a few of the meaty dishes that are harder to find in NYC. We especially love the vat of tender venison drenched in a dark brown gravy that tastes like clove and smoke, as well as the Goanese oxtail made with ample amounts (i.e., just enough) green cardamom and cumin.

David A. Lee

If you’re someone who prioritizes seafood, call ahead and secure a $115 whole Dungeness crab for the night of your dinner. Semma only serves three to five of these honkers a night, and the pleasure of eating one outweighs any effort it takes to obtain it. We can’t think of many restaurant experiences that have made us happier than when we put on a bib and prepare to catapult ourselves into this dish’s incomparable combination of buttery meat and cardamom-heavy chutney over coconut rice. Every pore of your skin and stitch of your clothing will inherit the smell of this crab and its sauce. Think of this aroma as a thoughtful parting gift, the same way super fans fawn over autographed t-shirts after shows.

David A. Lee

Semma doesn’t just serve great food. They serve great food in a stylish space. The restaurant’s dining room (imagine a dining car covered in bamboo) reads a couple of shades more intimate than Dhamaka’s big, color-blocked space in Essex Market, and, depending on what you’re looking for, that might be an important thing to keep in mind. Both restaurants are absolutely worth visiting, but for an Indian dinner where ambience matters just as much as the uttappam you’re eating, go to Semma.

Food Rundown

David A. Lee
Nathai Pirattal

Our server told us that this dish is predominantly cooked in rural areas of South India, where invasive snails often hang around in (and damage) rice paddies. We didn’t know this about snails. We also didn’t know that the taste of these limber little curlicues could somehow become even more mollusk-y when mixed with a thick, zippy ginger-tamarind paste. They’re served naked in a banana leaf boat on a pile of discarded snail shells, with two pieces of flaky kal dosa for scooping everything up. (These particular snails hail from Long Island, which could be considered a rural by Manhattan standards.) Full disclosure: this dish has been a bit inconsistent, in terms of portion size and flavor intensity. But give it a go anyway.

Mangalore Huukosu

This cauliflower dish comes fried in a semi-wet batter with a handful of byadgi chilis and big slivers of red onion. Each bite mushes and crackles at the same time. Get this.

David A. Lee
Mulaikattiya Thaniyam

Between the puffed grains, raw red onions, clumps of sappy coconut, and twisting sprouts, this snack stands out as one of the most refreshing dishes at Semma. It’s not necessarily a requisite order, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t enjoy a few crunchy bites if you’re with a group.

David A. Lee
Gunpowder Dosa

This podi-dusted rice-and-lentil dosa is filled with soft masala potatoes and a bunch of black mustard seeds. The inside tastes like it’s been bound together with stringy, melted cheese, but that’s only because the crepe’s fermented lentils release salty-creamy moisture when cooked. The effect is incredible. Dip each piece into the mint and coconut-cilantro sauces, and drink the warming lentil sambar on the side.

Seasonal Uttappam

Soft-in-the-middle and crispy on the outside, this rice-and-lentil pancake derives a decent amount of its flavor from the vegetables inside. Ours had a couple different root vegetables, all of which held their structure in the uttappam batter. (This dish also comes with sambar on the side, just like the gunpowder dosa, so you probably don’t need both.)

David A. Lee
Attu Kari Sukka

Semma’s spicy dried lamb could be served on a frisbee or a cocktail napkin, and we’d still enthusiastically lap it up. Each piece falls off the bone, and, if you poke around, you’ll probably find a cinnamon stick hiding underneath a couple of freshly fried curry leaves.

David A. Lee
Mirchi Ka Salan

If you’re a vegetarian, beeline to this Hyderabadi dish consisting of long green peppers submerged in a shimmering peanut-sesame curry. There’s something about the way nuttiness and spiciness collide that will make you want to clean your plate.

David A. Lee
Chettinad Maan Kari

Semma’s spicy venison will rock your week. It’s our favorite meat dish here, and it’s not as gamey as other deer we’ve had in the past—probably because the star anise and fiery chilis that vibrate your esophagus on the way down.

Goanese Oxtail

After the venison, Semma’s tender oxtail would be our next recommendation for a large meaty entree. Make sure to order coconut rice on the side with this dish. The combination of cumin, green cardamom, and sweet rice makes the meat’s peppery flavor pop even more.

David A. Lee
Kanyakumari Nandu Masala

Musicals have 11 o’clock numbers, soccer has penalty kicks, and Semma has a whole dungeness crab covered in sweet-spicy cardamom gravy. This is the truest showstopper on the menu, and it’s the thing we’ll remember years from now when we’re wearing bibs and cracking crustaceans somewhere less exciting. They only make between four and six a night, so reserve yours ahead of time or ask about the availability as soon as you sit at your table. The only way to enjoy this $115 crab to its fullest potential is to use your hands— but as soon as you taste the mixture of coconut rice, garlic-heavy curry, and sweet buttery crab, it’ll be worth all the mess. Also worth noting: Semma claims this crab feeds two people, but if you order a couple other dishes, you could easily stretch it to four.

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