The place is packed by 1 p.m., servers threading through with pails of curry, three to a cluster like a trio of paint buckets, some dribbling lines of bright, spicy gravy. The bouncing, jocular Indian pop music that bounds through the room could be the backdrop to a Bollywood movie. It’s Sunday lunch at Kumar’s in Plano. The decor is minimal: dark walls, dark banquettes, and an island-hut motif that emerges toward the back, where a mock stand holds bananas and oranges, and a chalkboard lists fresh-squeezed juices. Unusual touches, but they’re an indication of provenance. The food at Kumar’s is South Indian, hailing from the land of fresh fruits and coconut palms, of sinuous waterways and palm-toddy makers.
Hence the banana leaf lining your tray. And hence the classic poriyal (grated coconut with mustard seed and a fine dice of vegetables—green beans, predominantly, gently cooked in ghee). On weekends at Kumar’s, the lunch is not buffet-style, but served to you tableside in an experience utterly reminiscent of Southern India, but almost impossible to come by in this town.
First, a glass of savory buttermilk flavored with cumin and coriander. Then the tray lined with its swath of green. And now, sit back as the servers make their rounds. One woman brings a collection of munchy things: pappadam (not quite crispy enough); fried whole chiles (long skinny ones that were once rusty red, now fried a dark brown and a delight to crunch); and, best of all, onion nuggets, their flavor deep as French onion soup, their texture crackly as Rice Crispies. These are your crunch-factors.
Now your banana leaf fills rapidly thanks to the next five intercessors. One who carefully doles out a dab of pickle—spicy, tangy, salty—and a tiny mound of salt. One who bears a trio of sambal (lentil stew, a little thicker here than the norm); diced potatoes, yellow from turmeric and popping with mustard seeds; and urad dal (yellow split peas) with cabbage, its sweetness mellow and reminiscent of a similar Ethiopian dish.
The rice man scoops stark-white rice. Next come three vegetable curries: a spicy, tomatoey South Indian staple; the coconut-green bean poriyal; and a rust-red okra curry with pearls of a nightshade cousin of eggplant. Meaty curries follow: maybe goat curry, earth-colored and marbled with fat and spices; fish; and a chicken curry warm with cardamom (watch for the tiny bones). They may come with no explanations. Don’t worry. More rice? More curry? The servers come around to ask—and to save you with plain curd (yogurt) to mix into rice and cool the fire of the spiciest dabs.
South Indian “filter” coffee, distinctive and sweet, comes in a small aluminum tumbler set on a tiny tray. (There’s no spoon to twirl it; you’ve been utensil-free from the beginning of the meal.)
That item going by that looks like uttapam (a stuffed bread) is an omelet, folded and full of a confetti of herbs and vegetables. Kumar’s is one of the only places in town where eggs, simply prepared, constitute their own section on the regular menu. The kitchen is faithful to South Indian “village” cuisine, as they proudly proclaim on their website, including the simple egg-based vegetarian staples.
By the time your appetite wanes, your banana leaf littered with remnants, the woman of the crispy-crunchy tray returns, this time with ping-pong ball-shaped sweets of grated coconut and cardamom. It’s hard to eat just one. With the filter coffee, they’re a lovely conclusion.
Chennai Cafe’s weekend buffet may outshine Kumar’s in finesse. But you come to Kumar’s for the adventure. For the servers whooshing by with their swinging pails. Don’t be caught out of your seat; the aisles are perilous and exhilarating as a moving train.