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Recipe for Success 

Prepare fine, humble foods in a chic upscale setting, add wine list and music, and stir

Wednesday, Mar 22 2006
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In the restaurant world's constant search for the new new thing, there's a time-honored trend of elevating a humble ethnic street food or snack by removing it from its accustomed setting — be it a stand, a dive, or a home kitchen — and surrounding it with upscale trappings: a chic, comfortable dining room (no Formica tables or fluorescent lighting), relaxing alcoholic beverages, and contemporary background music. This enables, for example, a new "modern Israeli" restaurant in Brooklyn to charge $14.50 for its chicken shawarma — admittedly a "deconstructed fancy-pants chicken shawarma," to quote a recent review — though many of these places serve straightforward versions of their specialties.

I've never been to Breach Candy Beach in Bombay (now Mumbai), but I first tasted its delicious frankies, highly portable roll-up sandwiches filled with chicken, lamb, or cauliflower curry, in Los Angeles' Bombay Cafe, an upscale outpost on the Westside that built its reputation on these unfamiliar treats (described, yes, as "Indian burritos"). They were designed to be consumed while sitting on a sandy beach, but frankies are no less tasty if you're sitting in a comfy chair and washing them down with a glass of sauvignon blanc or a ginger margarita. Like many Indian places, Bombay Cafe offers among its starters a masala dosa, described as "a South Indian 'crepe' filled with spiced potatoes and served with fresh coconut chutney and sambar."

But there's more to this popular street food than that. Dosa, a stylish new South Indian place in the Mission District, features a dozen varieties of its namesake dish, in addition to half a dozen uttapams (described as a "delicious open-faced variation of the dosa"), in a charming room painted in spicy colors, with stylish hanging glass pendant lights, nicely framed mirrors, and a busy bar. The bar is necessary, since the eatery takes reservations only for parties of five or more and fills up within an hour or so of opening; it offers, on top of a small but well-chosen list of wine and beer, that additional signifier of a restaurant that doesn't have a full bar license but would appreciate some booze-related income — the soju cocktail. I sipped an $8 Mango Seed, composed of soju and mango lassi, while waiting for my pals to arrive, two mostly-vegetarians who were already fans of the place, if not yet habitues. Frances' $4 mango lassi turned up on our bar bill as another Mango Seed, which took time to correct, but we had time to spare, since it was about 20 minutes before we were led to our little wooden table, set inconveniently close to the bar, where I was frequently bumped as servers and customers attempted to walk behind me.

But I was distracted from the discomfort by the tempting menu, which, besides the dosas and uttapams, included a few soups and salads, 10 starters (such as idli and vada, more popular South Indian snacks), and, counterintuitively, only four curries: one fowl, one meat, one shellfish, one vegetable.

We didn't try any of the curries on my first visit, since only I was enticed by the chicken and the lamb, and I'm happiest when everybody wants to dig in to everything on the table. A plate of crisp, highly peppered papadum chips arrived with the menus, and they were irresistible. We started with a combination plate of idli, a light steamed patty made of ground lentils and rice, and vada, a heavier fried dumpling made of mashed lentils — the two dishes a nice example of textural contrast — served with the soon to be ubiquitous accompaniments of sambar (a thick lentil soup) and Dosa's coconut chutney dipping sauce; and a spicy squid dish called cochin calamari, the tender seafood piled on a base of fresh salad. Garrett and I made short work of it.

We followed with one of the namesakes, the Spring dosa, a classic masala dosa plus fresh vegetables, served rolled up (rather than folded) and cut into chunks, with sambar, coconut chutney, and a small ramekin of fresh, rather mild, saucy tomato chutney; an egg dosa; and an assortment of small uttapams called South Indian Moons. The Spring dosa was unusually well filled. (Often when you read the word "stuffed" on an Indian menu — as with, say, garlic or onion naan — you remember only when you bite into the crust that the word should be "sprinkled" or "dotted.") The mashed potatoes added a creamy note to the minced fresh vegetables, which included celery and green pepper as well as cooked peas. The "lightly scrambled eggs mixed with mild Indian spices" were much more skimpily spread on the egg dosa, which came folded, covering the whole plate; if you were unlucky in the portion you cut off, as I was, the eggs were nearly invisible, but the crisp and thin "crepe" was still fun to tear chunks off of and dip them into one or all of the three accompanying sauces. The "moons" were palm-sized versions of the plate-sized uttapams, lacy, thin pancakes made with a batter of rice and lentils, with a variety of ingredients cooked in, such as paneer (mild fresh cheese), peas, caramelized onions, and (my favorite that night) green chilies, onions, and coriander. The sambar and chutney sides were joined by a bowl of channa (tomatoey spiced garbanzo beans).

We finished with a cooling bowl of chocolate ice cream for Frances, three little gulab jamoon (caky dumplings served in fragrant sweet syrup) for me, and a bottle of Lindemans Framboise Lambic, a raspberry Belgian beer, for Garrett, which seemed pricey at $8. It had been a beguiling and interesting meal, but I hadn't quite fallen in love with the place.

That happened on my second visit, on a chilly, rainy night, when a hostess took pity on us and seated Peter, Anita, and me 10 minutes into a projected 45-minute wait, even though the fourth member of our party hadn't yet shown up. (A table on the comfy, pillow-strewn banquette, separated from the busy kitchen by just a hanging sheet of plastic, had unexpectedly opened up.) We promised to order right away, and John arrived even before we'd had a chance to request what seemed to be a slightly lopsided meal: one starter (potato croquets), one dosa (onion rava), and each of the four curries. The plump, battered mashed-potato croquets were steaming under their dark brown crust, and the lacy rava dosa (which the menu deemed "wispy"), made with semolina and wheat, was crunchy with scattered red and white onion bits. Tasty. Fun to eat. Not a surprise, after my first visit.

But the surprise was the curries, all of which were delicious, prime examples of their kind. (I guess if you offer only four, you can perfect each one.) The moist pepper chicken had a nice hit of ginger; the garbanzo curry came with a bhatura, a huge puffed bread, nicely oily, that melted in the mouth (we ate every morsel, and could have done justice to another); and I couldn't decide whether I preferred the savory Tamil lamb curry, whose lightly tomatoed sauce featured fennel and poppy seeds, or the delicate prawn coconut masala, the large shrimp lightly poached in a sweet, creamy sauce. The sauces were happily sopped up with steamed basmati rice topped with fresh peas. These were the best curries I'd had in the Bay Area. I loved washing this subtle, exciting fare down with a fruity 2004 Leitz Rüdesheimer Magdalenenkreuz Riesling Spätlese, which is a lot easier to drink than to spell. On a later visit, when I was prompted by hunger disguised as research, it proved superb with the Chennai chicken (boneless morsels marinated in yogurt flavored with cumin, curry leaves, cilantro, and coriander, and then fried), a Mysore dosa (spread with spiced mashed potatoes), and my new favorite dish, the supple paneer and peas uttapam, which proved even better as leftovers consumed as a midnight snack. Garrett had told me a bit of gossip: Dosa's chef had been offered a lucrative, cushy position as a private chef. We all breathed a sigh of relief when Garrett said he'd turned the job down.

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Meredith Brody

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