Even in the midst of the Wall Street meltdown, I kick myself for not scraping together every penny I owned to buy a few shares of Google stock when it went public in 2004. Not only because I would have been a multi-thousandaire by now, but because the damn thing practically owns me. I credit the search engine, along with two obsessive foodie friends, for helping me figure out what I should order at Curry Leaf, a new Indian restaurant across the street from Factoria Mall.Ben and Hannah hunt down out-of-the-way places even more assiduously than I do, and they've been responsible for a few good finds over the years. One day, while we were e-mailing back and forth about dinner plans, Ben suggested Curry Leaf, enclosing a link to the menu and a teaser: "I think they serve Keralan food." A man after my own heart, he'd been plugging the names of the menu's unfamiliar dishes into Google to see what came up. And "kappa with fish curry," "parota with salna," and "vermicelli payasam" seemed to come from India's southeastern coastal state. If there's such a thing as restaurant-critic crack, it's a new flavor, something unexpected, the hint of a dare.The rush of discovery might never have hit if the three of us hadn't done our research by the time we arrived at the strip-mall restaurant. While Curry Leaf's menu gives many clues that the restaurant specializes in South Indian food, it's also full of red herrings.To explain what those are, bear with me for a couple of paragraphs before I get to the food: India's many cuisines are as dramatically varied as those on the European continent. Just as you could draw a vaguely useful line dividing the cuisines of Germany and Eastern Europe from those of the Mediterranean countries, you could draw a similar one between the north and south halves of the Indian subcontinent. North Indian restaurants—where many of us are used to getting our tandoori meats, puffy wheat breads, and curries enriched with yogurt, ground nuts, and ghee—are more prominent in the States. Meanwhile, southern restaurants are where you go for gigantic, papery crepes known as dosas; lentil-and-rice steamed dumplings and fried donuts called idlies and vadas; the tangy lentil soup called sambar; and the predominant spices of coconut, mustard seed, and curry leaf.Complicating the picture, most of the South Indian restaurants on the Eastside don't stick to their culinary borders, since non-Indian diners tend to get sketched out if they can't find their palak paneer and butter chicken. Udupi Palace and Mysore Masala hew more closely to southern food, but the menus at Mayuri, Spice Route, and Curry Leaf are all over the place. At Curry Leaf, you can order a Punjabi classic like baingan bartha with Muslim boti kabobs and an Indo-Chinese dish mysteriously named "chicken 65." (Just a hint here, based on experience: I'd rather eat at Panda Express for a week than try gloopy, mushy Indo-Chinese food one more time.) When Ben, Hannah, and I started asking the owner about the Keralan connection, he shut us down with "We serve food from all over India—north, south, all over."The few northern dishes I tried at Curry Leaf—lifeless naan, a bland hariyali kofta curry, and a merely pleasant stir-fried "kadai vegetables"—seemed to back up my sense that the South was where it was at. Therein, the three sections of the menu where we Google-enabled diners found the highest concentration of southern and Keralan-specific dishes were in the "Curry Leaf Specialties," "Curry Leaf Combos," and "South Indian Specialties" (duh).I can get channa masala and Kashmiri naan at 20 places in Seattle, but I'd certainly drive back to Bellevue for Curry Leaf's kappa with fish curry. "Kappa" turned out to be a mass of seasoned cassava root, starchier and blander than potato, which was mashed and then fried. We dipped crisp-edged blobs of it through a soupy, spice-reddened coconut-milk curry, bathing the starch in a slightly tangy, sweet-edged sauce.A similar reaction was elicited by the goat curry, whose impact was more of a body rush than a palate-prickler. We fished chunks of the red meat out of their brick-red paste, threaded here and there with pinkie-size red chiles and curry leaves. Despite the signs of heat, the curry had a dense fragrance beyond mere spiciness.If a theme emerged from the meal, it was the ubiquity of curry leaf, which to me tastes somewhere between bay leaf, black olive, and toasted chickpea (the herb has no relation to "curry powder," other than the fact that its Hindi name, kari patta, sounds like "curry.") Curry leaf was also ground into a pesto and smeared thinly on the insides of the curry-leaf dosa, where its nutty-citrusy aroma tinged an excellent crepe. We tore off bits of the dosa, glossy brown and crackly on its pan-cooked side, and either dipped them into sambar or swabbed them through a trio of chutneys: toasty, rich coconut chutney; fire-red "gunpowder" chile puree; and a dark-brown paste of toasted pulses and spices that I found bitter and burnt. At the apex of the fanned dosa folds was a lump of spiced potatoes mixed with crunchy pulses.I came back a week later with more friends. Once again we sat at a table with elaborately folded napkins and heavy-stemmed glasses. The room looks like it could be a beauty parlor as well as a restaurant, painted that shade of pink, known as "dusty rose" in the Reagan years, that is now most commonly associated with dentists' offices and Chinese restaurants. Long, swervy mirrors alternate with Deco sconces along the walls, and the most elaborate piece of furniture in the room is a steam table for buffets.Though it was still not possible to get the waiter to admit to a regional specialty, again the strongest dishes were the ones tinged with the flavors of coconut, curry leaf, mustard seed, and chiles, from a stir-fried chicken "sukkah" to the kara masala dosa, the crepe this time spread with a layer of ground toasted chiles instead of pureed herbs. Overall, the food was almost as good, if slightly different, from Spice Route, located a few miles away (and reviewed in SW on Sept. 26, 2007). None of the curries had the lively specificity of Spice Route's food, in which it's often possible to identify layer upon layer of spice. Instead, the individual particles in Curry Leaf's masalas (spice blends) fused together into waves of flavor, balanced and unified.Udupi Palace and Mysore Masala serve complete multicourse meals as thalis, a mass of tiny silver bowls grouped on a single-serving tray. Since Curry Leaf doesn't offer that option, an undereducated Westerner has to content himself with a cultural mutt of a meal, organized European-style into appetizers and entrees, with rice and maybe some bread on the side.If you're really interested in putting together a full Southern Indian meal at the restaurant—pouring your sambar over your lemon rice and rolling in some lamb-eggplant curry and freshly made pickle, say, or crumbling a papadum into white rice and dribbling over it a tangy yellow yogurt curry—you'll have to come to Curry Leaf for that most American of authentic Indian meals: the lunch buffet. Pick up a plate, O adventurer, and hit the steam table.PRICE CHECK
CURRY LEAF 12821 S.E. 38th St., 425-746-1239, www.curryleaf.us. BELLEVUE. Open for lunch and dinner daily.
Kadai vegetable $9.25
Kappa with fish curry $12.95
Curry leaf dosa $7.50
Chicken sukkah $11.95
Goat curry $13.95 email@example.com