A trio of first-time restaurateurs in Maine is offering the people of Southern Maine their first taste of South Indian cuisine. Manjullavijay Yeety, Nalini Dasana and Naga Ammaji Juttu launched South Portland-based Aroma in December.
Left: Nalini Dasana, Naga Ammaji Juttu and Manjullavijay Yetty launched Aroma, above, in South Portland in December. Photos by JEN RICHMAN
The restaurant’s menu features predominantly South Indian cuisine, including Andhra Chicken Curry, Goat Chetti Nadu, Masala Dosa, Chicken Birynai and Chicken Tikka Masala. Diners can also grab North Indian classics such as Chana Masala, Paneer Mutter and Mail Kofta.
Lunch buffet costs $5.95 for kids and $9.99 for adults. Appetizers range in price from $3.95 to $6.95. Some entrees come in a choice of small or large portions and range from $7.95 to $19.95. Aroma is open for lunch Tuesday through Sunday, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and for dinner from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m.
Dasana, Juttu and Yeety, who say they are as close as family, rotate shifts running the restaurant.
Fourteen employees work at Aroma, including two chefs each with eight years of experience, said Vijay Yeety, Aroma’s general manager and Munjullavijay’s husband.
Juttu, Yeety and Dasana spent $150,000 renovating the restaurant’s location, converting space previously used as a uniform supply store, said Vijay. The restaurant features neutral-colored walls, abundant sunlight and pendant lighting. According to its owners, Aroma is the first Indian eatery in the Portland area to incorporate South Indian dishes along with North Indian classics.
“You have to go to Boston to eat idli dosa,” said Manjullavijay. “We are focused on what we can offer that other restaurants do not.”
In addition to being the only Indian eatery to offer South Indian dishes, what sets Aroma apart from other Indian eateries in and around Portland is its South Indian influence on traditionally Northern dishes, said Dasana. For example, Aroma’s two chefs make liberal use of spices used predominantly in South India cooking, such as cumin and anise seeds, cardamom and cloves.
“This is the best food, even [compared to food in] India. The South Indian food is unbelievable. [I] tell our Indian friends this is the best dosa,” said Portland resident Rebecca Dobrow, a customer of Aroma. She described the quality of the food overall as better than food she has while on a trip to India.
The Yeetys own a Comfort Inn in Scarborough and say that opening a restaurant was appealing as a means to offset typically slow business at the hotel during the winter months. According to Vijay, the couple sees restaurant ownership as a good way to bring in some extra cash during the typically quiet hotel winter months.
Just over a year ago, the couple began scouting possible locations to open a restaurant. After finding a spot on a busy commercial stretch in South Portland, the couple decided to move ahead with making their dream of restaurant ownership a reality. Part of attaining the dream meant having to call on Dasana and Jettu for help because restaurant ownership seemed like too much work for one couple, according to Manjullavijay.
Dasana relocated to Pennsylvania in 1999 from Andhra Pradesh, before moving to Scarborough in 2009. She comes to the restaurant business with a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in computer science from Andhra Pradesh-based Saddhartha College of Arts and Science.
After working in the public sector for a couple of years, Dasana said she decided to join Aroma’s co-owners in a new venture because of a dearth of area South Indian eateries, she said.
Scarborough resident Juttu came to the United States from Andhra Pradesh in 1999. She has a bachelor’s degree in computer science from Rajhumundry and a master’s degree in computer science from Jayawada.
The Yeetys moved to the United States in 1988 from Andhra Pradesh in order for Vijay to pursue work in biochemistry. By 1999, he broke into the hotel business in order to spend more time with his family, he said. Vijay has a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry from SV University in Andhra Pradesh and Manjullavijay has a bachelor’s degree in communications.
The woman say there has been a learning curve regarding learning the ropes of running a restaurant.
Juttu acknowledges that while none of the women came to the restaurant business table with any experience, they are beginning to gain ground. She says she and her partners have learned a thing or two since opening Aroma. Chief among them is interacting with customers to ensure each is getting the best possible dining experience.
Being able to relate well with their clients opens the door in helping those uninitiated to Indian food, in becoming more adventurous when ordering, according to Munjallavijay, who says she is always prepared to educate customers about which dishes to pair with one another.
That kind of day-to-day simple interaction with customers, along with exposing diners to something new is what Munjullavijay had in mind for her restaurant. “It was a passion for food, mainly to introduce South Indian food to Americans here,” she said. At the end of the day, all of the women agree that long hours spent running their restaurant pays dividends. “[The restaurant business] is tough but you love it so you don’t feel the pinch,” said Dasana.
For more information about Aroma restaurant, call (207) 512-2200, or visit www.aroma-indiancuisine.com.