Edit 3/28/06 - Cafe Chettinad has closed, but some other Indian restaurant has taken over the same spot. I haven't tried the new place.
I love Southern Indian food on account of Devi at Touch of India in Columbia, SC. I swear my soul that it doesn't get any better than her food. I love her dahi puri - an appetizer made with puri, potatoes, yogurt, and tamarind chutney. I have yet to find it on the menu at another Indian restaurant. The other day, I tried out Cafe Chetinnad on Kirkwood Highway between Wilmington and Newark to see what was up with Southern Indian in the Wilmington area.
Short answer - not much!
I walked in with my partner about 9 p.m. on a Friday evening and only two other couples were eating. I figured it was probably all about the lunch buffet like most Indian restaurants. The atmosphere was like any standard restaurant in a strip mall - nothing fancy, but usually the good finds are stuck in some defunct strip mall. They weren't playing any music, which detracted from the atmosphere. Play a soundtrack from a Bollywood movie! It's what one expects. It was too quiet in there. The poor couple next to us had to listen to me talk about sex. Hell, play anything!
We placed our order for the andra spicy masala dosa - a crepe with potatoes, onion, coconut, tamarind, and chutney - and an entree that contained paneer. We were told that they were out of paneer, lamb, and shrimp. OUT OF PANEER? Are you kidding me? This is like a pizza joint running out of cheese. We gazed again at the vegetarian entrees, and most had paneer as a main ingredient. We order bhindi masala - main ingredients okra and tomatoes.
The service was pretty much non-existent. Both servers would peek around the corner from the back and gaze off into the distance at imaginary customers, never making eye contact with us. Or they would gaze at the floor as they walked past us and lift their eyes after they had passed. It was rather difficult getting their attention to order a beer that we had forgotten to put in with the food order. When we finally got their attention, they gave us a choice of about four beers. We chose one to have them come back and offer us a choice of one beer - not the one we wanted. OUT OF BEER! That lunch crowd must get crazy.
The dosa was good. I recommend it. It's not the best, but most certainly not the worst - the worst are flimsy, old dosas sitting on a buffet. The crepe was crisp and the filling was delicious - not too spicy. The dosa came with the standard sambar side and coconut side. It also came with a tomato chutney that was unimpressionable. The tomato chutney reminded me a little of condensed tomato soup (I guess it did make an impression, just not a good one). I asked for a side of raita - a yogurt condiment, which was not listed on their menu but they produced it.
The bhindi masala was most disappointing. It was edible (we ate it), but instead of Southern Indian, the dish tasted more like Southern! Memories of my mom's okra and stewed tomatoes over rice came to mind. These are good memories, don't get me wrong; okra is one of my two favorite vegetables. This dish was simply missing the complex mix of fresh spices and the heat that I normally associate with Southern Indian food.
Back to service. When we were given the check, the server hovered over us as we looked at the bill and did not leave. She literally looked at the bill as we were filling out the tip amount, and actually touched one of the copies in her attempt to help us find the right one to fill out. This was very unnerving. I honestly think she was mentally a little gone or suffering from effects of drugs. I've never had this happen at a restaurant.
Seeing as this restaurant is in a location that I rarely find myself, I probably will not be back. There was nothing to rave about - mediocre food, poor service, poor atmosphere, and a poorly stocked kitchen. They blew it on first impressions, which, like your parents or teachers tell you, count for a lot.