Enter Saravanaa Bhavan and smell the essence of cardamom and cloves and something else mysterious. Though the ingredients may remain a secret, the cooking process is wonderfully revealed at this primarily southern Indian restaurant, which features a glass-encased kitchen where diners can observe chefs ladle dosa batter onto fiery grills and conjure up complex curries.
The restaurant's home on Lawrenceville Highway has had an interesting evolution. Once a PoFolks, it was replaced by Madras Saravana Bhavan, which closed despite its popularity. After four months of renovations, Saravanaa Bhavan, an international chain, opened in late October.
Curry flurry: Though Madras will be sorely missed, Saravanaa Bhavan has finally erased any essence of the PoFolks country-cooking chain infrastructure. The immaculately clean and brightly colored eatery blasts Indian pop music and sports oversized shots of fruits and vegetables on the walls. The menu is modern and slick. A much-needed silver pitcher of water sits on every table. That's no promise to burn away spices from the fires of this restaurant's southern Indian dosas (pancakes), northern vegetarian curries and stuffed breads.
During a recent visit we started with a plantain bajji ($3.50). The appetizer coats thick slices of unripened plantains in chickpea batter. The plantains are flash-fried but not greasy, and served with a rich, sweet chutney and a spicy sambar. The breads were exceptional. The tandoori paratha ($2) is a whole-wheat, multilayered bread baked in a hot clay oven. Better yet is the aloo peas paratha ($3), layers of whole wheat stuffed with spiced mashed potatoes and green peas.
Biryani nirvana: There is a multitude of fried-rice dishes (biryanis, dhosas, talis upphappams and curries). The waitstaff speaks excellent English and is helpful. We were advised to split a vegetable makhanwala curry ($7.50) and a combo No. 1. The combo ($7.95) plate mixed sweet rava kichadi, idly (lentil donuts) and masala dosa, a thin rice-and-lentil crepe filled with potatoes and sauteed onions. The vegetables in the makhanwala (cauliflower, carrots, eggplant, potatoes and a rich butter gravy) were pleasantly al dente, not a cooked-down mishmash. A yogurt-based raita sauce drizzled on the curry cooled down the heat.
The more the merrier: Another benefit to eating with a large group where one can share -- seconds of rice, porri bread, various chutneys and other condiments come at the discounted price of $1-$3.
Though the food at Saravanaa Bhavan is solely vegetarian and, for the most part, heart-healthy, beware of a ghee (clarified butter) overdose. It's a good idea to cut it with a buttermilk drink or sweet-and-salty lassi ($2.50). The special milk tea ($2) is a strong brew boiled in milk, and can be heavy in and of itself.
The desserts are also worth a try. Inexpensive and generous in proportion, the gulab jamun is a favorite – a well-rendered delivery of homemade cottage-cheese balls in a sugar syrup with a hint of rose.
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