Country of Origin: India
Locations Worldwide: 57 in Bahrain, Canada, France, India, Malaysia, Oman, Qatar, Singapore, UAE, US, and the UK
NYC Locations: One, in Gramercy
One of the many brightly lit Indian restaurants lining Lexington Avenue's "Curry Hill," vegetarian Saravanaa Bhahan (also listed as Saravanaas and Saravana by the company) isn't instantly recognizable as a chain. And being a franchise certainly doesn't repel crowds; on any given evening there will be a wait for seating. Turnover is a priority, so the food has a tendency to come from the kitchen in rapid-fire secession, creating a battle for space on the small tables.
As Saravanaa specializes in Southern Indian cuisine (only two of their 27 home restaurants are located in the Northern part of the country), it's wise to stick with regional strengths like uttapham, idly, and massive dosas, despite a sign advertising new tandoori dishes.
Of the 25 dosas available, the cheese masala ($9.50) might be the best. The thin crepe made of lentil and rice flour is stuffed with melted white cheddar (not paneer, as you might expect) and turmeric-and-mustard seed-spiked mashed potatoes. Hefty and a little greasy, this is a far cry from the more delicate versions simply sprinkled with nuts and raisins or topped only with onions; it's a meal in itself. Dosas are served with sambar and three chutneys: red, white and green from tomatoes, coconut and cilantro respectively.
Poori ($5.70), deep-fried puffed bread, comes with two default curries—on this occasion, the potato masala that was also in the dosa, and spicy kidney bean stew. Light with a chewy texture, the starchy accompaniment isn't oily at all and a change from more common naan (which is also on the menu).
Idly (also spelled idli) are small, steamed circular cakes made from a fermented lentil-and-rice flour batter, the same as the dosas. Kaima idly ($7.99) are fried idly, then chopped into chunks and served them in a reddish tandoori-style sauce with raita on the side. This was an interesting preparation, and felt substantial for an appetizer, as it was billed.
A la carte curries are also available, and the gobi masala ($10.50) a notch below fiery and just a little creamy, is a good choice if you need another vegetable. It's hard to go wrong with Indian cauliflower preparations.
About the author: Krista Garcia is a freelance writer and librarian (who does not work with books). Being obsessed with chain restaurants and Southeast Asian food, she would have no problem eating laska in Elmhurst and P.F. Chang's crab rangoon in New Jersey on the same day. She blogs at Goodies First.