After fire, Mount Vernon Southern Indian restaurant recovers, relocates, reopens, and reinvents
Published: October 5, 2011
It was good news when Indigma reopened a little over a month ago after a devastating fire damaged the Mount Vernon building that housed it and several other businesses last year. Rather than wait for its original space to be restored, Indigma has moved across the street into the old Tony Cheng’s space, a move that may or may not be temporary, according to owner Tony Chemmanoor.
Nonetheless, Indigma has inhabited its new home as if it were a permanent move. With its 15-foot ceilings and gorgeously intricate carved moldings, it’s a striking space to be sure, made all the more arresting by the use of color. The walls, painted in tropical shades of mango, fuchsia, violet, and pineapple, glow warmly, as vibrant as sari silk. There are crystal chandeliers, sweeping salmon curtains, and views onto Mount Vernon Square, unless you’re unfortunate enough to have a seat facing the room filled with a soda machine and steam tables used for the daily lunch buffet (which at $9.95 weekdays/$12.95 weekends sounds like a bargain).
With Indigma’s new and larger location also comes a new and expanded menu, bordering on overwhelming, divided into sections such as “Earth,” “Sea,” “Land,” and “From Grill,” as well as “Vegan and Gluten-Free,” “South Indian Specialties,” and even “Indo-Chinese.” That’s not to say Indigma has lost its contemporary flair or that you won’t find some of your old favorites. The staff still brings open-face samosas and the vegetarian dumplings known as malai kofta to the table in oversized white plates. But the menu has grown exponentially, and you may find yourself, as I did, having a hard time distinguishing what is old and what is new.
Granted, this is mostly immaterial, as what matters is what we’re eating now, and much of it is quite appealing, beginning with the appetizers. Rather than the usual fritters, asparagus pakora ($5) offers a plate of long spears dipped in light chickpea batter and fried. Mango paneer ($5) might look like a block of ramen noodles sitting in the middle of your plate, but the texture couldn’t be any different. The noodle-like shreds are actually grated paneer bound together with mango and a handful of spices, including fennel seed. It’s an unusual dish—sweet, savory, fragrant—but a very pleasing one. Nepalese Himalayan mamos ($5) are slightly less interesting, more doughy dumpling wrapper than vegetable filling.
What has set Indigma apart from the city’s other Indian restaurants is the way the kitchen often reinterprets traditional Indian dishes, and this habit remains. So rather than paneer mattar, the classic dish of peas and cheese in tomato sauce, you can order calamari mattar ($14), with chewy rings of calamari taking the place of the paneer. I’m not sure I like it as much as the original, but it’s not a bad concept. Methi saag aloo ($10), a combination of potatoes and spinach, takes you back to traditional territory—homey comfort food with subtle spice.
A range of Southern Indian dishes are new to Indigma, which means you can get long, cylindrical dhosas or flat, frittata-like uthappams ($7) mounded with vegetables and sauced with a lacy coconut mixture as a lighter vegetarian meal. And I also didn’t recall Indigma offering thali, the equivalent of a sampler platter, but now both vegetarian ($16) and nonvegetarian ($18) versions are available. The latter contained a creamy daal, chicken kadai interspersed with great chunks of bell pepper, and a very salty chicken tikka kabob, as well as raita and rice pudding. I’d love to see this platter play it less safe and reflect some of the more unusual (duck korma? mutton with tapioca?) or seafood-based dishes—say scallops vindaloo—on the menu. It could be a great way to introduce diners to the range of styles now available.
That said, sometimes you just want classic, and I wish Indigma hadn’t gussied up the gulab jaman ($5) with Grand Marinier, though I don’t think it was the liqueur that made the dumplings tough and dry.
Indigma retains its liquor license, though its wine list could use some serious tweaking in terms of quality. Service, too, needs a little time to ease into the routine, although I think the issue the night we dined was an overall paucity of servers rather than any individual failings. Folks were simply pulled in too many directions to spend much time with any table.
Still, there’s a feeling of warmth and hospitality that has followed Indigma across the street to its new digs. When one diner remarked to Chemmanoor how much she appreciated the gluten-free menu, he explained that many dishes were or could be accommodated to be gluten-free. “We are flexible for your enjoyment,” he added, graciously. Welcome back, Mr. Chemmanoor and Indigma. We missed you.
Indigma is open for lunch Tuesday-Friday, dinner Tuesday-Sunday, and brunch Saturday-Sunday.
> Email Mary K. Zajac