Photograph by Craig Cutler
Leave it to innovation-happy chefs to demolish one of the big myths of ethnic eating: the dingier the restaurant, the better the curry. Great culinary minds are now serving the South Asian specialty alongside plates of foie gras and tomato sorbet. Instead of dishing out dumbed-down versions, they're extracting coconut milk, whipping up curry pastes, and toasting cumin seeds to order. And, naturally, they're not satisfied with three-meat menus: Think fried catfish and battered tempeh. JJ Goode
THE BEST TWISTS ON CLASSIC CURRY
1. Studio (Orange County, California)
James Boyce steeps cumin, star anise, and mustard seeds in honey to make an Indian-inspired curry sauce that he drizzles over cauliflower, baby potatoes, and John Dory.
30801 South Coast Highway, Laguna Beach, 949-715-6000
2. Lantern (Chapel Hill, North Carolina)
A paste of cilantro root, lemongrass, and roasted shallots provides the base for the Thai-style coconut curry that chef Andrea Reusing dreamed up for the catfish from nearby Aydenall perfectly paired with a weet-tart green-papaya salad.
423 West Franklin Street, 919-969-8846
3. Flying Fish (Seattle)
Seared scallops and black-rice risotto mesh felicitously with Christine Keff's Thai saucebright yellow thanks to turmeric, and fragrant with garlic, galangal, and Kaffir lime leaf.
2234 First Avenue, 206-728-8595
4. Broadway East (New York)
Vegetarian curry hounds once had to settle for tofu, but Cory Hughes dredges tempeh in shredded coconut and tops it with a Thai-French sauce of red wine, red curry paste, and allspice.
171 East Broadway, 212-228-3100
5. Stephan Pyles (Dallas)
Pyles' menu offers a roasted chicken with a salad of house-made paneer (an Indian cheese) and an aromatic sauce made from coconut juice, coconut milk, and a Chennai-worthy spice blend.
1807 Ross Avenue, 214-580- 7000
WHAT MAKES A CURRY?
Let's get something straight: Curry isn't an ingredient. It's not rooted in the powder, which is a mix of spices that was thrown together by the British during colonial times to approximate the flavor of an Indian specialty. The term curry refers to a wide range of intense, saucy concoctions popular in South Asia. Thai curries start with a paste (made from chiles, cilantro root, galangal, shallots, garlic, and other ingredients), while Indian curries are anchored by toasted spices like coriander, turmeric, and cuminmany of which you will find in curry powder.