Adventures in South Indian Breakfast: Dosa, Medu Vada, and More At Saravanaas

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I’m a huge fan of the dosa—the enormous South Indian crepe, glistening with buttery ghee, made particularly popular in New York by the “Dosa Man” in Washington Square Park.

Only recently, however, did I realize that the dosa is often eaten as a breakfast dish. It certainly makes sense—crepes, too, are both sweet and savory, for both morning and night. But I'd never gone for spicy mashed potatoes in the morning. Having never had a breakfast dosa before, we headed for Curry Hill spot Saravanaas. An offshoot of Saravana Bhavan, an acclaimed global chain of South Indian veggie fare, this was a place that knew its dosas. And everything else, too.

20090625svcoffee.jpgThe breakfast combos at Saravanaas, around $7 to $9, each come with a small coffee, milky masala tea, or soda. My coffee, like a mini-cappuccino, was strong and sweet.
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Our first breakfast discovery were idlis: coaster-sized puffy cakes served with a quintet of dipping sauces. Made from a batter of finely ground rice and lentils, just like a dosa, each idli was spongy and fun, like a sticky cake of sourdough. Since they’re steamed, not fried, they’re much lighter than a lot of Indian fare.

The array of sauces ranged in heat and texture: tangy tomato, pulpy coconut, potent coriander and green chile, and sear-your-mouth-off chile sauce. Plus a mini-dish of veggie soup. Way more fun than maple syrup.

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A little less virtuous are the medu vada, fried rings of lentil-rice batter with little hints of cumin. Each doughnut is dense and bready on the inside, appealingly crunchy on the outside—very fried-tasting, but not too greasy.

At Saravanaas, they’re served alongside dishes like pongal, a sweet rice pudding absolutely oozing with ghee, the clarified butter that makes virtually all Indian food so silky and rich. Ginger and spice lightened things up a bit, but this was one buttery porridge.

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And then, the star of the show: a rolled dosa nearly the size of our table. Quite literally as long as my arm. (I measured.) This is the Goliath to a French creperie’s little David—gutsy, and butter-crisped around the edges, and structurally sound. Though it may look thin, the lentil-rice batter makes this crepe a hefty, hearty meal. And getting your hands dirty, tearing off little pieces to dip in the same lineup of sauces, makes for a fun start to the morning.

The breakfast dishes definitely followed a predictable pattern: Rice-lentil batter, whether fried, steamed, or steamrolled, with ample sauce and spice to keep things interesting. All variations on a theme. But it's not like pancakes, waffles, and crepes are all that diverse, either. Buttery carbs with flavor-packed toppings—sounds like morning to me.

Saravanaas

81 Lexington Avenue, New York NY 10016 (map) 212-679-0204
saravanaasrestaurant.com