By Mollie McWilliams
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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.
San Francisco, CA 94110
Region: Mission/ Bernal Heights
Cochin calamari $8
Spring dosa with fresh vegetables $9.50
Onion dosa $9.50
Paneer and peas uttapam $9.50
Tamil lamb curry $15
Prawn coconut masala $15
Open for dinner Sunday and Tuesday through Thursday from 5 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday until 10:30 p.m. Closed Monday.
Reservations accepted for parties of five or more
Noise level: high
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).
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