If you want to measure how big a deal Saravanaa Bhavan is, consider this: It has no buffet. An Indian restaurant in Dallas-Fort Worth without a buffet? Unheard of. How can it convince budget-minded and/or reluctant diners unfamiliar with the cuisine to come in and try the food?
Saravanaa Bhavan doesn't need to do that. Part of an international chain based in India with dozens of branches around the world, this buzzy, fast-paced South Indian vegetarian restaurant is a major arrival for the local Indian community. They've welcomed it with the same kind of zeal that surrounds the opening of another Trader Joe's.
Weekends have a frenetic energy and a guaranteed wait, and so does dinner after 7:30 p.m.
Part of the excitement comes from the fact that it's something from home. But beyond nostalgia, the food is special and very good, with an attention to detail and consistency that reflects the fact that chefs are trained at company headquarters. The menu also has a few goodies not found at other Indian restaurants in town.
The no-brainer starting point is the "special meal" ($11.50), or thali, a generous, colorful sampler that gets you a taste of this and a taste of that. Presentation was cool. A large stainless steel circular tray held 10 smaller stainless steel bowls, each containing a different kind of vegetable or stew. In the center was a bowl of rice and two pita-like pieces of fried bread called poori.
One small bowl contained chunky potatoes and peas. Another had chickpeas in a spicy saffron sauce. A third held dal, a thick puree of lentils, and another held sambar, lentil soup with soft onion and carrot. There was a jam-like chutney with ginger, and yogurt to cool your tongue if the spicy heat got too hot. There was even dessert, a kevari -- a thick sweet pudding made with semolina and flavored with cardamom.
If you're the kind of person who likes to sample flavors at an ice cream store or if you like to play with your food, this dish will be heaven. And not only was the portion plentiful, it provided many tastes and sights, which on its own kind was filling.
Saravanaa boasts an incomparable selection of dosas ($6.50 to $8.25), the highly prized crisp, light Indian crepe: 23 options, ranging from plain to cheese to onion to dried fruit. Order one of their combo plates ($6.95 to $9.20) and you get a mini dosa on the side.
The combo plates came with one of Saravanaa's most lusciously starchy items: idli. This steamed rice pancake was satisfyingly moist and thick on its own or else dipped in one of the accompanying sauces, such as a bright cilantro curry or rich coconut chutney.
The other luscious objects were the vadas, or doughnuts ($4.95). These were savory not sweet, dense in the center, with smooth crisp shells and a pleasing hint of grease. You can get them with sauce on the side or submerged in a sauce. The richest was curd vada, with the doughnuts drenched in yogurt and garnished with carrot and cilantro. The experience of a baked good starting to wilt in response to the liquid was a sensory pleasure.
One unusual standout: mixed vegetable parotta (8.50), a hearty, spicy-hot melange featuring parotta, a tortillalike bread cut into thin strips and stir-fried with vegetables such as onion and pepper; imagine a soft, suppertime version of migas. This was a filling dish, but it was so spicy and satisfying, we couldn't stop eating it.
End with their Madras coffee ($2.50), a notoriously potent brew served in a utilitarian stainless steel cup, with milk and sugar already added and a little cap of frothy foam. It's a Saravanaa signature, whether you're sipping it in the branch in Irving, Paris or Singapore.