Love in the Time of Coriander

Thoughts on food & more.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Dosas are all the rage

Fact 1: Every brown person in San Francisco knows that a restaurant specializing in South Indian food opened its doors in the Mission.

Fact 2: There are so few brown people in San Francisco that they all know one another. (Hence, word of the new South Indian place spread like wildfire.)

Maybe I'm stretching the truth a bit, but it seems egregious that we're on the cusp 2006 and South Indian food is practically an unknown quantity in SF! A few years back, even the Indo-Chinese fusion--Gobi Manchurian and all--made its way into our fair city. But the great irony, in a city that lauds itself on food forward thinking and a long list of innovations, no decent idlis or dosas (food which is the mainstay of almost 1/2 billion people) are to be found for miles around . . . until now.

If you perused The Chronicle yesterday or heard through the brown person grapevine, you'll know that Anjan and Emily Mitra sought to rectify this problem, debuting their new digs in the cursed space next door to Herbivore. During my tenure in the City, several places optimistically opened and closed in that location. Never did I enter whatever trendy thing inhabited it. Something about it says, "Keep walking. There are plenty of better options in the neighborhood." Unfortunately, not for South Indian food.

To be fair, I haven't yet tasted Dosa's food. And I'm frankly not tempted to try. I sent two very trustworthy emissaries (my brother and his fiance) to scout it out, and they gave it a bona fide thumbs down. First, they were miffed by the fact that the owners of the restaurant aren't even South Indian. Everyone can find a niche and fill it, I suppose. But when I hear of someone starting the original something-or-other, especially when that something is close to my heart, I'm hoping for just a little bit of street cred.

Sami and Hansa report that the dosas came cold to the table and that they weren't properly fermented. People, listen very carefully. A dosa is not a crepe! Sometimes, we are too eager to Anglicize our names and dumb down our cuisines in order to make the world understand that we eat food worthy of a French person's assent! A crepe is not fermented, but its phenotypically similar but genetically unrelated bedfellow, the dosa, is. A dosa should taste akin to a sourdough baguette. That's what makes it um-um good. What's more, they say that the chutneys were horribly bland, looking sadly like an obese rat racing against Secretariat, my mother's kick-ass coconut and peanut blends. The home stretch was a spicy, tasty sambhar that was warily perceived as having come from the innards of an MTR box.

But, what do we, who have nothing to compare this restaurant to, know? Without the bar of my mother's culinary skills (and the many South Indian restaurants in and out of the US I've frequented), how could I possibly know that this doesn't measure up? For starters, trek a little outside of the City to the likes of where the South Indians lie in Sunnyvale, San Jose, Fremont. You'll find bunches of brown people lined up around a corner, waiting for brunch: a mile-long paper thin sour dosa, stuffed with the spiciest potato stuff with sides of the freshest sambhar and to-die-for chutneys. I'm talkin' Sarvana Bhavan all the way.

Incidentally, dosa parties among my mother's lady friends are all the rage these days. They hire the women from Fresno's famed Brahma Bull, who on a roll-out griddle make the most delicious dosas to order. If you want the real deal--and it doesn't get much realer than this--arrange for a dosa feast in your own home. And invite all the lovely brown ladies in Fresno along. They won't lead you astray.


At 9:45 AM, Blogger Sam said...

i went there last night and planning to write it up next week.

I am obviously not Indian so have no real experience of this type of food but spent my early adult years as a vegan in London when South Indian food was just about my only option for eating out so I have many visits to Drummond Street to compare it to.

Have you tried Kennedys Utthapam and Dosa?

Personally I think it might be fairer to actually try a place before having such a strong opinion. But having said that, I think you are right in your assumption that wouldn't like it.

The owner is from Bombay. How does that fit in the map of this type of food? Would be interested to know.

They were very nice and friendly people, by the way.

At 2:07 PM, Blogger the food therapist said...

i'd be curious to hear your take on the restaurant. i think you've launched a very good criticism -- i think i got carried away with the review without yet trying the food. i should also say that the owners were very open to criticism from my bro & his fiance. hopefully, that translates into improvement.

but my feelings about wanting a more authentic south indian place at least as the first to enter the city still stand. thanks for keeping me accountable!

as for bombay -- it'd still be considered more northern in scope -- the sort of food that north indian/pakistani places would make. dosas seem to be something north indians try to replicate, but the other south indian stuff such as utthapams, aki roti, idlis, vadas, etc are usually only found in the south indian joints.

thanks for reading!

At 5:17 PM, Blogger Sam said...

i hear you -

i love south indian food which is why i rushed to try it.

i would so love for someone to open a really decent English restaurant in SF too.

i am not holding my breath

At 5:32 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Iam Sangeetha, a foodie and a Chennaiate. I hear you loud and clear. Its almost a quest to me to find a good South Indian Restaurant. Let alone dosa's i dont even want to get started on the stuff they pass off as sambar.

If you ever go to chicago, you should go to Priya's in Schaumburg. One of the best south indian places i have ever been to after coming to the US.

939 W Wise Rd
Schaumburg, IL 60193

At 7:22 AM, Blogger the food therapist said...

thanks for the suggestion, priya! i'll definitely make it out to schaumburg sometime!

At 5:37 PM, Blogger Anjan Mitra said...

Hi Sam - This is the “Bombayite” from Dosa. One my co-workers pointed me to your blog and needless to say I had a strong urge to respond (maybe against my better judgment). I sincerely apologize for some of our missteps when your brother and his fiancé visited. I think I know who they were and there were a lot kinder in their criticism than your review :-)! We always try to listen to our customers and improve things. If I remember correctly they visited us on our first or second day and we’ve definitely fine-tuned things since then. I believe part of their experience was a result of our not having our systems ironed out and nothing to do with an attempt to “anglicize” (or maybe “Americanize”) things.

With respect to your post, I’d like to clarify some of the facts about Dosa, our cuisine and about India. Our chef is originally from Trichy (near Chennai) and our sous-chef is from Coimbatore (as you know both in South India) and they grew up eating…dosas! All our masalas are freshly prepared in our kitchen. Our dosas are prepared from a rice and urad dal batter (as you know), which is fermented everyday for about 10 to 12 hours. (Yes, some of the preparation begins the night before). And yes, we know a dosa is not crepe it was just a word we used to describe it to our non-Indian clientele. (If you can think of a more appropriate word I’d be completely open to using it instead).

Having grown up in Bombay (now Mumbai), which is in the state of Maharashtra, till I was 18, I can comfortably say that is not considered part of North India. North India generally covers (excuse the geography lesson) Rajasthan, Punjab, Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Uttranchal, Himachal Pradesh and Kashmir. Even Gujratis who live north of Bombay would not consider themselves to be North Indian (definitely not in a cultural or culinary sense).

Also, Bombay has hundreds of South Indian restaurants run by, of course, South Indians… a lot more than you’ll find in Sunnyvale, Fremont or San Jose. This accounts for my experience with the food. Needless to say I’ve eaten at Sarvana Bhavan, Udupi Palace and other places in the South Bay many, many times. The last time I visited Sarvana Bhavan they didn’t even have Indians making the dosa, let alone South Indians, and the food was disappointing. It’s very important to me that our food tastes like the food I was used to having at the South Indian restaurants all over Bombay and on my visits to Madras, Trivandrum, Bangalore and Hyderabad. I do understand how the food is supposed to taste but, I also recognize that each of us has our own preferences (spiciness, crispiness, etc).

We have only been open for four weeks and we already have a regular clientele of Indians (and non-Indians) who have visited us more than 3 or 4 times. We’ve had several fresh-off-the-boat South Indians ask us if they could meet the chef in person.

We sincerely hope you, your brother and his fiancé visit us again and we hope we can meet your high standards. I do believe we’ve fixed things since their last visit the day after we opened.

As a side-note, most serious restaurant reviewers will give a restaurant a few weeks before giving them a review. Also, they’ll generally eat at the restaurant before criticizing it in such detail. :-) I do hope you stop by...and then update your review! Cheers.

At 1:11 AM, Blogger Anjan Mitra said...

My apologies... I meant to address my comments to Summi. Regards. Anjan.

At 9:51 AM, Blogger the food therapist said...

dear anjan,
thank you for feeling free to write in. first, i should apologize to you with my review. as i said in one of my comments to sam, it was not fair of me to try the food first before reviewing. i got caught up in an analysis of the significance of your restaurant being the first south indian hotspot in san francisco is. the implications of this are multiple and no doubt, people are still learning what south indian food is. i feel personally responsible for that representation. that is where my heart went, perhaps unfairly using your restaurant as a springboard for that criticism.

i do intend to come in sometime soon and will keep an open mind when doing so.

best wishes, summi


Post a Comment

<< Home