Diner: The Swami Show

At Mayura India it's a festive banquet of flavors and spices

Nov 15, 2001 at 2:06 pm

In India, hospitality is extended with warmth and affection through the medium of food. An ancient Sanskrit saying, translated as, "A guest is equal to God," illuminates this philosophy. Whether the hosts live in a mansion or mud-and-brick hovel, they go out of their way to make guests feel welcome. In an affluent home, they might throw an elaborate banquet; rural families might slaughter a chicken in your honor.

Fortunately for the four of us at Mayura India Restaurant on a Friday evening, a banquet was what our host, Kalayan Swami Naidu Sumkara — known by all as Swami — had in mind. With his dark pools of mysterious cobra eyes, Swami is as exotic as the aromatic spices used in Indian cuisine. A charming and magnetic personality, he is unquestionably the Raja of Mayura. Born in Hyderabad, a city in south central India known for its fascinating mix of Hindu and Muslim cuisines, Swami emigrated to the U.S. when he was 19; he opened Mayura 21 years ago.

Mayura's menu includes breads, appetizers, soups, rice specialties, Tandoori, vegetarian, seafood, chicken, lamb and South Indian cuisines. Unless you are adept in your knowledge of Indian food, put the menu aside and let Swami order for you.

He'll ask about preferences (vegetarian?), then nod confidently and whirl off to the kitchen.

Three bowls of Indian relishes launch a game of "Name That Chutney." Cool, green mint is obvious; another, pumpkin-colored and spicy, suggests yams (carrots, we are told); and the dark, foreign chutney, we believe, is Tamarind (the Indian date, Tamarind is the fruit of an evergreen indigenous to India). Appetizers arrive just in time to dip into the seductive chutneys: Samosa ($2.69), deep-fried, pyramid-shaped pastries filled with spiced potatoes and peas and Bajjis ($4.25), a sort of onion fritter or "pakora." We all agree that our host has chosen well.

Just the right amount of time passes to absorb the first course and engage in lively conversation before the main meal arrives with a sizzle and complex nose of cinnamon, cardamom, bay leaves and chilies. Center is a plate of naan ($1.59), the garlic-laced flat bread that's cooked along the walls of a Tandoor oven, and papad ($1.50), crispy, daal (lentil) wafers — mainstays of northern Indian meals and reason enough to clean the chutney bowls.

Navaratan Korma ($7.95), Shrimp Bhuna ($12.95), Chicken Tikka Palak ($10.95) and a Vegetarian Thali ($11.95) are placed before us with gusto. Swami pours wine (a bit sweet for me as a solo glass, it weds reasonably well with the pungency of the dishes), and we dig in with as much enthusiasm as it was served. Thali is a traditional plate meal with several courses spooned into small, individual bowls that are arranged on a large-rimmed tray, always surrounding rice. This is a perfectly balanced meal, letting you sample many dishes at one sitting. My Vegetarian Thali has naan, navaratan (vegetables cooked in a cream sauce), green salad, baingan barta (baked eggplant in a mild sauce), daal (lentils cooked in ghee with fresh ginger and onions), papadam (crispy lentil wafer), raita (homemade yogurt, cucumbers, tomatoes and onions) and payasam (rice pudding with raisins and cardamom). I mixed the daal, barta and navaratan into the basmati rice ("basmati" means "queen of fragrance") and used the naan instead of a fork to scoop it all up. All I needed was a turban and bindi to fit right in.

My guests opted for forks but, nonetheless, immensely enjoyed their Chicken Tikka (in a mild, creamy spinach sauce), Shrimp Bhuna (with sautéed peppers, zucchini, broccoli, mushrooms and onions) and the Navaratan Korma (nine vegetables and cashews in a slightly sweet cream sauce with an after kick). Every last bit of sauces were wiped up with any remaining naan so that our server exclaimed us "victorious."

While chai is the drink of the nation, South Indians also enjoy coffee with a lot of milk. Swami offers us Indian lattes: In traditional Indian hospitality, the guest is expected to be courteous and refuse while the host politely ignores the refusal. Swami is down with this custom. A latte arrives anyway as our host delights in serving this with much showmanship as he pours the hot milk with flair from two feet above the cup without spilling a drop.

This is the Swami Show: It's a perpetual state of celebration.

Go: 3201 Jefferson Ave., Clifton

Call: 513-221-7125

Hours: Tuesday-Saturday 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. South Indian Brunch: Sunday, 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Dinner: Tuesday-Thursday 5-9:30 p.m., Friday-Saturday 5-10:30 p.m. Closed Monday.

Prices: Moderate

Payment: Major credit cards

Red Meat Alternatives: Seafood, chicken and ample vegetarian selections