Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Saravanaas

Saravanaas Restaurant
81 Lexington Avenue, New York, NY, 10016.
(Corner of 26th street and Lexington)
Tel: 212-679-0204, 212-684-7755
http://www.saravanaas.com/index.htm
A few years ago I ate at the Saravanaas Bhavan in Connaught Place, New Delhi and one of my hosts—a transplanted Tamilian in Delhi—explained to me the significance of this restaurant, that it was the Dehi outpost of a famed restaurant in Chennai called the Hotel Saravanaas Bhavan. I enjoyed the food there, topped it out with some South Indian filter coffee, and after a few days of conferencing headed back to New York. Then a few months later I became aware of the opening of the New York branch of Saravanaas Bhavan—right at the intersection of 26th. and Lex, in the middle of the Indian strip of stores. I have been going there a few times a year since. I had been looking for a South Indian restaurant in NYC that could match the quality of casual SI food that I could get in India, or in San Jose on my trips out west and initially, at least, Saravanaas did not disappoint. The dosas were not oily, the potato stuffing inside tasted lively and not dulled by excessive spices. The thalis were fresh tasting, and the South Indian filter coffee, or Kaapi, served in the traditional tumbler-davarra was great.

Never leave a south Indian restaurant without tasting its coffee. While tea is king in most parts of India, and people from Eastern India can be obsessive about the flavor and “liquor” of their leaves, the states of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu in South India are primarily coffee drinking. South Indian coffee is a bit different. The writer R.K. Narayan when asked in the US whether he wanted his coffee black or white, commented that he wanted it, “neither black nor white, but brown, as any good coffee should be.” The dark roasted coffee beans have a bit of chicory mixed in, and the concoction is filtered through the coffee powder for an extended time. It is served in a cup that is placed in an empty tumbler, and the idea is to swish the liquid, pouring it back and forth from ever extending heights between the two utensils until the aeration leaves a thin, frothy head on the liquid.

Saravanaas has an extensive South Indian menu, and having grown up primarily in Pune and Kolkata, on the idli-dosa-vadaa-sambar-thali school of SI cafes, I claim no expertise in the extended offerings of vegetarian south Indian cuisine. However, I was disappointed in my last trip to this place. The place was crowded, the service was uncoordinated, and the food tasted like the south Indian food you would expect when the cook is a Bengali. This was stuff that I could have had at my local Indian restaurant in Westchester. This is a pity and I sincerely hope an anomaly, since on more than one occasion I have seen the demise of a good Indian restaurant due to sliding quality control over the years.
Saravanaas on Urbanspoon

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