Karnataka (in New Jersey and India)
I first read about Hoysala, an Indian restaurant in Somerset, NJ specializing in the cuisine of the southern state of Karnataka, on a website called NJIndia. I'm guessing that all the restaurant reviews on the site are written by one very eccentric and opinionated guy, despite the use of the royal we. Most of the reviews are scathingly negative. One of the more recent pieces opens as follows: "All ye schmucks can say what you will but when it comes to dishing out the worst possible food, you just can’t beat these New Jersey shitholes masquerading as Indian restaurants. Completely clueless in the kitchen, utterly hopeless in the service department and totally remorseless in their overall attitude, most Indian restaurants in New Jersey are absolutely worthless pieces of shit unfit for even cattle."
So when I read a review of a restaurant that serves the well-nigh impossible to find cuisine of Karnataka titled "Manna from Heaven in New Jersey," I pricked up my eyes. Having found a great place on Long Island for the hard to find cuisine of Kerala, I was thrilled about the prospect of a place that serves the even more elusive cuisine of Karnataka.
Indian cuisine is incredibly diverse, which is why I'm always pissed off when ignorant yahoos respond to my recommendation of an Indian restaurant with comments like, "I don't like curry" (the Japanese restaurant ignorant yahoo response is "I don't eat raw fish"). The menu at Hoysala features quite a number of dishes I was completely unfamiliar with.
I hooked up with a bunch of friends and went out for a weekend lunch. For lunch they do a buffet, and I believe for dinner you have a choice of buffet or a la carte. The buffet featured quite a number of Karnatakan specialties, but I was disappointed that we couldn't order the pineapple gojju (pineapple and bell pepper cooked with onion, red chillies, menthe seeds and spices) that the NJIndia writer unabashedly kvelled about.
Still, there was an embarrassment of riches. The buffet included both vegetarian and meat dishes. There were a number of appetizers and salads, idlis, vadas, dosas and pappadums. Main courses included a revelatory egg masala, black pepper chicken, Malnad chicken and goat, spinach lentil thouve, alasande saaru (a black-eyed peas and potato dish), mixed vegetable saagu, Andhra chicken biryani, and shavige bhath (sort of a cross between idiappam and uppma (you can look 'em up)). For descriptions of the dishes, see the restaurant's menu. The food was, in general, moderately spicy, with a wide palette of flavors, and with but a few exceptions memorably delicious. The price for this cornucopia is $12.95.
I spent close to two weeks in the state of Karnataka on my third trip to India, in 1999, after I had wrapped up work on a Y2K IT project. The first two times in India I was on my own, but this time I had a travel companion, which made it financially feasible to hire a car and driver for 8 days. The sights of Karnataka are manifold, but scattered all over the state, and doing the itinerary by public transportation would have been rather rough and taken twice as long.
The restaurant Hoysala is named for the empire that ruled Karnataka from the 10th through 14th centuries. The stunning Hoysala temple architecture at Somnathpur, Belur and Halebid, built between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries, are, as far as South Indian stone carving is concerned, rivaled in beauty and delicacy of execution only by the Chola architecture of Tamil Nadu.
My friend and I flew to Bangalore, the modern, high-tech center with a thriving English pub culture, and took the train to the delightfully charming but fast-growing city of Mysore. Mysore, the model for Malgudi, the setting for the novels of R.K. Narayan, is much more traditional in feel than Bangalore. Mysore is famous for its sandalwood and is home to a rather garish royal palace and great, rich coffee. In Mysore we hired our driver for our trip through Karnataka, ending in Hyderabad, in the neighboring state of Andhra Pradesh.
The Jain pilgrimage site of Shravanabelagola, not far from Mysore, has the largest monolithic statue in the world, the 10th-century Bahubali monument. My friend Claudio, who I met in Karnataka in 1990, said that for an Italian Shravanabelagola is a funny name--it's like saying "Shravana beautiful throat."
After Shravanabelagola and the Hoysala sites at Belur and Halebid, we visited the fabulous ghost city of Hampi, the seat of the Vijayanagara empire from the 14th through 16th centuries, and then moved on to Badami, with its rock-cut Hindu and Jain cave temples.
Further north in the state we encountered Muslim architecture, like the 15th-century fort at Bidar; Bijapur, home to the Gol Gumbaz, a building that feature's a dome second only in size to that of St. Peter's in The Vatican; and Gulbarga, with a ruined fort that features a mosque modeled after the one in Cordoba, Spain.
Karnataka is one of the Indian states richest in attractions, yet due to the difficulty of travel and the greater fame of Northern sights, few travelers get beyond Bangalore and Mysore, which is a shame.
And now, back to New Jersey for dessert...
2 JFK Boulevard
Somerset, NJ 08873