Nalukettu: the spice is right

Despite the endless and fierce competition, Nalukettu is one of the best Keralese restaurants in the capital.

If there's one thing that there is no shortage of in Abu Dhabi, it is Indian restaurants. Which makes perfect sense. For one thing, we have a large Indian population. For another, Indian food, more than any other cuisine I can think of (with apologies to China and Italy) travels extremely well and has long been a global staple. My first introduction to Indian cuisine was in England and it was not an altogether authentic experience, given that just about every Indian restaurant had what seemed to be the same menu. They were structured according to the heat quotient of the dishes - Madras this (I didn't know then that there's no such thing as a Madras curry in India), vindaloo that (one up in the heat chain; I hadn't a clue that vindaloo is a Goan speciality renowned for more than its bite) and the dreaded Bangalore Phal (the hottest of the hot; I never plucked up the courage to try it).

Along the way, I've learnt quite a bit more about Indian food - enough to know that the Nalukettu restaurant deserves its reputation as one of the best of its kind in Abu Dhabi. Given that the cuisine is mainly Keralese, which means that competition is particularly fierce, that is a real compliment. A recent visit reinforced my opinion of the establishment, which is located in the Abu Dhabi Marina Yacht Club in the Tourist Club area. I'd eaten there several times, and all but one had been more than satisfactory; I put the blip down to an off night, or perhaps the head chef's night off, and hey, we can't all be perfect all of the time.

My companion in culinary arms was a vegetarian; no problem - if any of the world's major cuisines is vegetarian-friendly, it is Indian. We started the evening with the crispy fried vegetables and netholi porichathu. The former was prosaically named but tasted anything but ordinary. The tiny pieces of carrot, onion, spring onion, cabbage and beetroot were delicately battered and fried to crispy perfection, before being lightly tossed in a sauce that was advertised as spicy and lived up to the billing. It was delightful, and a serious indication that the kitchen knew its business. The latter was a veritable mountain of tiny anchovies, lightly coated with a tangy masala and fried in coconut oil. It was one of those dishes that grow on you; the first impression was, well, so-so. But they had a gimme-more after-kick, and while they weren't uniformly crispy I soon found I'd reduced the mountain to a few morsels.

For the main courses, we ordered what turned out to be more than was strictly necessary, but we felt we had little choice if we were to give the menu a fair sampling. My companion tried the urala kizhangu masala (a potato curry) and the vegetable chettinadu (a mixed vegetable dish). Both were excellent. The potatoes were cooked to al dente perfection, the creamy sauce was just spicy enough, with tantalising hints of ginger. The mixed vegetables were equally good. The morsels of carrot, broccoli, peas and green beans were served, my companion declared, "perfectly underdone" and the mild masala complemented, rather than overpowered, their flavours.

I was equally happy with my jumbo prawn masala, Malabar fish curry and Nadan Kozhi curry, the last consisting of chicken in a no-nonsense creamy sauce, with pronounced ginger and coconut (a signature of Keralese cuisine) overtone. The meat was all legs and thighs, which are far more flavourful than breast meat. The good-sized chunks were juicy and - hats off to the kitchen - the creamy sauce was emphatic but not overpowering. The jumbo prawns, four of them, were huge, befitting the cuisine of a state on the Indian Ocean, and their preparation reinforced my suspicion that the kitchen knows its stuff. They were cooked just to the critical moment, and the slightly sweet tomato-based masala they were served in enhanced them nicely.

A vegetable pulao was less successful; bland rice served with a smattering of carrots, broccoli, onion and raisins. A chapatti was equally lacklustre; chewy, bordering on stodgy. Three parathas more than made amends; they were delightfully flaky and tender, and a further indication, given that Kerala is not a part of India known for its breads, that the kitchen was proficient. A footnote: even if it was in the line of duty, we came away feeling we'd ordered more than we needed - two people can eat well at the Nalukettu for less than the modest bill we received.

Nalukettu, Abu Dhabi Marina Yacht Club, 02 644 4395. Our reviewer's meal for two cost Dh200 without beverages. Restaurants are reviewed incognito and the meals are paid for by The National.