Herald on Sunday Rating: 4/5
Address: 754 Manukau Rd, Royal Oak
Ph: (09) 624 5859
This is a big weekend for many people with roots in India. Diwali, the Festival of Lights, is actually not until November 13 this year but local celebrations (in Auckland, in Aotea Square) are this weekend.
It seemed a good excuse to go and eat at an Indian restaurant, which we hadn't done for a while. And the last time we did, I received several commending to my attention this South Indian place in Royal Oak.
When readers recommend their local Indian, I always take the assessment with a grain of garam masala, because most Indian restaurants are somewhere on the spectrum between pretty good and damn good and people always feel a sense of ownership about their local. But in the case of Kairali, quite a few people were saying how good it was and it didn't seem likely that it was just because they all live in Royal Oak. So we grabbed an old mate who had spent a fair bit of time in India in her younger days and headed out there.
It's not the most attractive of shopping centres, Royal Oak. Anything that takes its inspiration from those faux-adobe American strip-malls hasn't really been trying hard enough, it seems to me, but I doubt the developer has to look at it every day.
Kairali is across the road, in what used to be a cake shop, with an excellent view of McDonald's. The restaurant's name is the adjectival form of Kerala, the thin strip of state on the extreme southwestern corner of India known as the Malabar coast - so it means "Keralese", if you will. This was an encouraging sign since I have always preferred the brighter spicier tastes of South Indian cuisine to the rich and creamy Persian-influenced Mughal cuisine from the north.
If you can't imagine an Indian meal without that triumph of British cooking known as chicken tikka masala they'll still look after you at Kairali.
But my advice is to scan the menu for the words "Malabar" or "Kerala" or "Chettinad" (a town in Tamil Nadu, which is on the eastern side of the subcontinent's tip) - or just ask the extremely obliging waiters for suggestions.
Kairali occupies a spartan room, which could be profitably softened with some swathes of fabric to absorb the noise bouncing off the white-tiled floor. A mural of mouthwatering food pictures occupies one wall and a television tuned to Bolliwood movies another.
Our friend was keen on the prawns. She said she often orders them in Indian restaurants because it reminds her of the time that she and her boyfriend were shouted a sumptuous meal of prawns in India by a businessman. It was not until later, as their generous host hammered persistently on their hotel-room door that she realised that she was meant to have been the payment for the meal. These prawns would have been a fitting way to celebrate her escape: big and meaty and swamped by a chocolate-dark gravy enlivened with tamarind and cashews, they were quite superb.
We'd started by sharing a masala dosa - the classic snack is sort of compulsory when you're in a South Indian place. The rice-flour pancake wrapped around mildly spicy potatoes was wonderfully done: the batter had cooked up crisp and slightly chewy and the traditional accompaniment of lentil soup called sambar was creamy and dense but with an agreeable kick. I was starting to regret the missing coconut chutney, but it came with the uttapam, another kind of floury pancake in which the sweet onions are cooked into the batter.
I was pleased there was a whole mutton section on the menu, because it makes the best curry and because you hardly ever see it these days (when we were kids, you hardly saw anything else, because the Poms were getting all the lamb). The dish the waiter urged on me was called mutton roast, a name uncomfortably reminiscent of my Mum's cooking, but the spicy sauce cut through any fattiness and left only the strong and satisfying flavour of the meat to shine. The Prof's dal, with coriander and cumin, was a perfect foil to the other dishes.
The desserts are nothing special here - though at between $3 and $5 they don't leave a sour taste in the mouth. But it's certainly the best South Indian food I've eaten in a while. Go soon - and don't order the butter chicken.
Excellent suburban South Indian.