I couldn’t begin to tell you how many times I’ve had navratan korma, a vegetarian fixture on Indian menus. But it’s a lot. And whenever I’ve ordered it, I’ve invariably been disappointed, left wondering how such an ordinary tasting dish could have a name that means “nine precious gems.”
I keep on ordering it, though, because such menu staples are meant to be sampled.
Then I ordered the dish at Lime & Lemon in Durham. Instead of the standard frozen vegetable mix I’d come to expect, this version was loaded with fresh pineapple, ripe tomato and other goodies that never saw the inside of a Birds Eye processing plant, in a rich, creamy korma. I didn’t count, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this is the first rendition of navratan korma I’ve had that lives up to its implied promise of nine fresh and dried fruits and vegetables.
Navratan korma is just one vein in a veritable mine of a menu that yields a treasure chest of Indian gems. Twenty-year veteran chef Sengu Arumugam mines both northern and southern Indian traditions, and polishes up a few contemporary sparklers of his own for good measure. I have yet to come across anything remotely resembling fool’s gold.
That’s especially impressive, given the variety of the offering. The extensive menu is divided into a dozen categories, including vegetarian and non-vegetarian appetizers, tandoori and biryani dishes, and a category for pretty much any entree protein you could ask for.
A separate section is devoted to the specialties of the chef’s native southern India. In addition to the traditional variations on the dosa theme, Arumugam offers a delightful modern take: avocado dosa, which presents the rice batter crepe not in its customary rolled form, but as thin diamond-shaped “sandwiches” with a filling of mashed avocado, cheese, and spicy chutney.
Less commonly seen hereabouts but also worthwhile is kothu parota, in which parota (a flaky, buttery southern Indian bread) is cut into pieces and sautéed in onions, spices and your choice of chicken, vegetables or egg. The plain parota is so good in its own right, you may well find yourself ordering it in lieu of your usual naan.
The starter selection alone is proof of the chef’s versatility. He’s equally adept — whether he’s recreating the crispy, savory fried lentil dough “doughnuts” of his childhood (served with a first-rate rendition of its traditional companion lentil soup, sambar) or venturing north for the universally popular vegetable samosas.
Gobi pepper fry — lightly battered cauliflower florets tossed with curry leaves, toasted red chiles and chopped cilantro — is another winning starter. Mutton chukka, a popular dish in southern India, wasn’t available the night I tried to order it. Chicken chukka provided ample consolation: exceptionally juicy nuggets pan-fried with ginger, garlic and spices.
I got my goat fix on another night, in the form of an entree offering of goat Chettinad. Featuring lean, tender bone-in chunks of goat in a spice-fragrant coconut-laced curry, it’s billed as a chef’s specialty. Deservedly so.
I don’t doubt that the other dozen or so chef’s specialties scattered throughout the menu also merit that billing, but one in particular is especially noteworthy. Tucked in among the chicken entrees is a dish called mango lime chicken. In addition to the little chef’s hat symbol next to the name of the dish on the menu, which denotes it as a chef’s specialty, the description of mango lime chicken includes the words SIGNATURE DISH. In all caps, no less. All I can say, after trying it for myself, is THEY’RE NOT KIDDING.
By no means do you need to limit your selection to dishes marked with a toque in order to score a hit. In fact, after sampling my way around the menu over the course of two visits, I’m pretty sure you could close your eyes and point to something on the menu, and be happy with your choice.
Oh, so you pointed to tandoori salmon, and previous experience has made you skittish about the prospect of fish cooked in the extreme heat of the clay oven? Not to worry, you landed a moist, beautifully seared keeper.
Southern-style shrimp curry? You just netted a catch laden with plump shrimp in a curry redolent of tropical Chennai spices and tinged with citrus. Chicken tikka masala? Winner, winner.
Lime & Lemon’s dining room decor is as vibrant as its name, with chairs upholstered in lime green, deep cushioned booths in lemon yellow, and color-shifting neon lights under the bar. Service is eager to please and attentive for the most part, though minor lapses can crop up when the dining room is full — which it often is on weekends.
The restaurant is the brain child of Ravi Jeyaraman, Raj Manikkam and Mayil Rajendran, three friends who work in the tech industry and saw the need for an Indian restaurant in Durham. They opened Lime & Lemon, their first restaurant, in April.
And they hit the mother lode on their first attempt.
Lime & Lemon
811 Ninth St., Suite 150, Durham
Rating: 4 stars
Atmosphere: vibrant, contemporary
Noise level: moderate
Service: eager to please
Recommended: tandoori salmon, goat Chettinad, mango lime chicken, navratan korma, avocado dosa
Open: Lunch (buffet) and dinner Tuesday-Sunday.
Other: full bar; accommodates children; excellent vegetarian selection; patio; wheelchair accessible; parking in lots at either end of the building and in the garage across the street (see parking link on website for more options).
The N&O’s critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: 5 stars: Extraordinary. 4 stars: Excellent. 3 stars: Above average. 2 stars: Average. 1 star: Fair.
The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $20. $$$ Entrees $21 to $30. $$$$ Entrees more than $30.