I used to dine every now and then with an Indian friend who was on faculty at a local university. I repeatedly asked him to explain Indian cuisine to me -- the regional differences, the role of religion, etc. -- and he'd talk nonstop for 15 minutes.
I'd always get that feeling I think people had whenever they asked me to describe my doctoral dissertation. Nothing sensible seemed to come out of my mouth, and my friend's attempts at categorizing Indian food likewise sounded like gibberish to me.
The Internet isn't much help, either. About the only thing I've been able to discern is that more butter and dairy products are used in the north, and fish is popular on the coast. In the southern regions, they like vegetarian cuisine – unless they are eating meat. Honestly, what seems to be true is that while various regions and cities have their specialties, Indian dishes have migrated around the subcontinent (and globe), just as regional cuisine does everywhere now.
There's no better demonstration of that than Saravanaa Bhavan (2179 Lawrenceville Highway, 404-477-5577). This mainly but not solely south Indian vegetarian restaurant is part of a worldwide chain based in Chennai. Its genealogy is a bit confusing. It is located in the space formerly occupied by the coincidentally named Madras Saravana Bhavan. That restaurant, long regarded as the best Indian venue in town, closed last summer when the owner and chef parted company to open other restaurants.
The news that the restaurant had been sold to a global chain was greeted skeptically. It would be like McDonald's trying to outdo Ann's Snack Bar, many thought. Wrong. The restaurant is better than ever in every respect. First, there's a huge picture window where you can watch the chefs prepare food that is esoteric to the Western eye, including the enormous rice-flour pancakes called dosai. It's great theater. The rest of the restaurant has changed very little, although some partitions have been removed so that everyone is more open to view.
The service is also better. Service was my only complaint about the former restaurant; the servers were impatient and seemed either ill-educated or disinterested in explaining dishes. During my visit last week, our server was able to answer all our questions, down to identifying a crunchy miniscule seed in one sauce.
The menu itself is probably no broader, although it is certainly colorful – one of those plastic, picture-book-style menus way too big to steal. We ordered two varieties of idly, the usual spongy white cakes made of ground rice and lentils. They arrived, like everything else in the restaurant, on a shiny metal tray. The five accompanying sauces were starkly different, ranging from cooling coconut to mild green chilies to a piquant sambar.
We also ordered kadlai idly, which is crunchy, chewy, very spicy chunks of fried idlies. The dish included green chilies, onions, cashews and peas. It was my favorite dish of the evening.
Dosai, at least 10 varieties, remain the signature dish here and we ordered the simplest – masala dosa, a crispy pancake wrapped around spicy warmed potatoes. It looks huge but goes down easy. We tried another pancake called adai avial, whose batter is made of ground nuts, lentils, rice and chilies, according to our server. It was served with a coconut-based chutney and jaggery, which is lumps of unrefined sugar. You pinch it with pieces of the pancake, before dipping it. It is super-sweet but oddly works well with the chunky, earthy adai.
We finished with a bowl of payasam, tapioca pudding with vermicelli, nuts, raisins and cardamom. Sweet.
The cost of this feast? About $26 for two. Is there a better deal in town? I doubt it, and Saravanaa Bhavan, like its predecessor, is the best Indian food in the city. And please, don't let anyone convince you that the lack of meat will disappoint carnivores. I've never taken anyone there who missed it.
Speaking of meat
In the interest of comparing and contrasting, we also decided to check out Zyka (1677 Scott Blvd., 404-728-4444), another Indian restaurant only a mile or two from Saravanaa. Zyka opened in 1997, specializing in Hyderabadi cuisine, which features a good bit of meat and has a striking Persian influence. The restaurant uses only halal meat, which is basically the Islamic equal to kosher.
We visited the evening of New Year's Day and the restaurant was packed, as it usually is. You order at a counter here. Please know what you want before you get there. I watched several people hold up the line endlessly while they tried to get an education in Indian food.
The longtime favorite here is the Chicken 65 starter – chunks of marinated chicken that are batter-fried and served with chilies, cilantro and curry leaves. I don't think I saw a single table that didn't order the eerily red meat.
Otherwise, to be honest, our meal fell way short of the one at Saravanaa Bhavan. Biryani is the specialty of this style of cooking and Zyka's, made with goat, was a disappointment. The meat itself was deliciously spiced, not gamy, and fork tender. But its rice tasted little different from the regular saffron rice. It didn't really taste as if the meat had been cooked with it.
I preferred an order of nehari – beef shanks simmered in garlic, ginger and other spices. Pour it over rice or pluck pieces of the shank with the fluffy nan. Do not order less than one nan per person, by the way. The bread is perfect for picking up bits of food Ethiopian-style.
We also ordered dal, pureed lentils cooked with tomatoes, cilantro, mint leaves and cumin. It's a ubiquitous dish, and I'm sorry to say Zyka's was way too watery.
There are no servers, just bus people, and the folks at the counter were completely frazzled during our visit. I had to repeat my order three times while the guy answered the phone, corrected somebody else's bill and answered questions from a rude dude behind me.
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