Vatan serves the same three courses to every customer: an appetizer thali, an entree thali, and dessert, a mind-blowing 21 dishes for $31. All you have to do is choose your drinks from an array of beer, salted or sweetened lassis, and sodas. As you recline, shoes off, beneath the fake banyan tree or a mural of women doing chores, in a booth with a thatched roof, you're served as much as you want for as long as you want. If you love the vegetarian specialties of Gujarat, it's pretty much the greatest restaurant of all time.
Appetizers include chewy, doughy khaman, a steamed rectangle of cream of wheat flour; sev puri, potatoes, garbanzo beans, yogurt, and chutney stuffed into a circle of fried bread, at once crunchy and creamy; and yellow muthia, steamed flour with veins of spinach, whose dryness may be offset with mint or tamarind chutney.
The ragda patis, a potato slab with white beans and corn, was too salty, but the chana masala, well-done garbanzos dressed with coriander and onions, was the color of fertile earth and tasted of gardens.
In the center of the silver plate's various compartments sat batatavada, potato balls fried in chickpea flour batter whose ping-pong chubbiness belied the piquancy within, and mirchi bhajia, deep fried hot peppers, which "can be tricky," as the server will caution. You'll probably want to get more of the baby samosas, shaped like a tricorner hat and full of potatoes and peas, too.
Midway through this first feast, your server will ask how you'd like your next course: mild, medium, or hot. (The appetizers are considered medium.) Gujarat hangs off the subcontinent's western edge, bordered by Pakistan and the Arabian Sea. Traders and explorers from Portugal, the Netherlands, the Arabian Peninsula, and elsewhere left behind chili peppers, tomatoes, corn, and potatoes, among other ingredients that are now used throughout the region's thalis. Wee portions of legumes, vegetables, and sweets form a complete meal in a single course. Meat won't be missed.
If you opt for hot, you'll get a wallop in the lentil soup called toor dal as well as the ful-cobi, shreds of cauliflower mixed with peas, and batakanu sak, potatoes soaked in red gravy. The bhaji, spinach and corn, and chole, garbanzos flavored with garam masala and tamarind, are milder.
Everything can be scooped up with puffy puri or eaten with pulao, rice and peas. The second rice, mixed with yogurt, lentil, and herbs, as soft as baby food, is known as khichdi; use a bit in the center of your thali to form a well, then pour in a few spoonfuls of the rich yogurt soup known as kadhi. For an extra kick, try the pickled carrots or roasted garlic atop the papadam (lentil wafers).
Along with your savories, the entree thali also features kheer, rice pudding with saffron, and aam rus, mango pulp that's deeply orange and thick. For dessert: a scoop of mango ice cream and a four-sip cup of milky masala chai, along with a bowl of breath freshener called mukhwas (fennel, anise, and other seeds and oils known to aid digestion).
A statue of big-bellied, long-trunked Ganesha, occasionally spotlit in purples and pinks, overlooks the dining room. Ganesha is the remover of obstacles, the biggest of which here being your belt. Dish size is deceptively little: eat some of everything, and you'll be full by meal's end. Indeed, the menu warns, "Please do not visit Vatan while on a 'diet,'" the scare quotes making a mockery of moderation. We find the atmosphere relaxing, but of course not everyone will enjoy eating barefoot in a recreated village. One couple's charming evening is another couple's hokey nightmare.
Assuming you're OK with the setting, however, Vatan makes for a lovely dinner: tables are far apart, a sitar plays softly from hidden speakers, you don't have to worry about what to order or how to pronounce it, and you're shielded from the fratmosphere of Tonic East and the other bars along this stretch of Third Avenue. It's best for: a gut-busting, palate-pleasing, serenity-restoring date.