Even if people sometimes play fast and loose with the dictionary definition of the word “casual,” it’s all the rage for moderately-upscale-to-upscale restaurant to open a slightly less formal sibling. Often, as with Rich Table’s RT Rotisserie or James Syhabout’s Hawking Bird, these are the best versions of fast-casual. They’re chef-driven, they have a well-composed menu that distills the essence of the mothership into a tincture, and they subtract some of the more expensive or labor-intensive dishes from the equation, swapping in a few others to give the place enough personality to stand on its own. They don’t give you an icky corporate feeling like they just want to divide by cellular mitosis until they’ve conquered the entire surface of the globe (the way I feel when I walk into, say, Proper Food). And they almost always have brightly colored plastic stools.
Dosa by DOSA, in Uptown Oakland, adheres to that spirit; the napkins read, “Be civilized. Eat with your hands.” Short of putting your elbows on the table, too, you don’t get much more casual than that — except for the hefty price cut relative to the other two DOSAs. Here, an habanero-mango salsa dosa is only $9.50, whereas at DOSA on Valencia, it’s $13.
But that’s getting a little ahead of things. In DOSA the restaurant, dosas the lentil-rice crepes from south India have long been able to pass themselves off as nearly regal by the sheer force of exoticism. There’s nothing bad or cynical in the slightest about that, but having eaten at dosa by DOSA a few times, I feel like this is a better — or even better — context for what amounts to street food. What is frustrating, though, is how a dosa can be longer than my forearm but the filling occupies barely more than a fist. I know that leaves plenty of crepe to rip off and dip, but you can’t help but feel a little crestfallen upon realizing what’s what.
Even though they’ve always been elegant, and with thoughtful cocktails, husband-and-wife team Anjan and Emily Mitra‘s DOSA on Valencia and DOSA on Fillmore had a playful streak, using their menus to encourage the uninitiated not to be afraid and to just go for it. (This warm, hospitable streak characterizes other variations on contemporary Indian cuisine as well, like August 1 Five or Indian Paradox.)
The menu here is pared-down but not stripped to a nub, and it’s worth it to go with four people and order a bunch of things. I haven’t had a dosa that did me wrong, but the tamil lamb ($13.95) might be the best one, with roasted chile garlic ($8.95) right behind it. It’s a little dismaying to pay $2 for a single piece of naan, but the fluffy cheese-stuffed naan ($5.50) feels superior to virtually every quesadilla on this Earth. Tex-Mex, too, gets shown up in the form of a paneer wrap ($11.95), a vegetarian breakfast burrito of sorts made with egg, farmer’s cheese, plenty of onion and cilantro, and a caramelized onion masala. Being omnivorous, I tried a prawn masala wrap ($12.95), and while the shrimp are nicely seasoned, it doesn’t have quite the minimalist appeal.
There were a couple other surprises, things that sounded like they’d be good and turned out to be much better than good. Covered with mustard seeds and parsley, the idli fries ($4.95) have a texture that’s kind of a spongy crunch. Although idli — a rice-and-lentil cake — has a quietly savory flavor on its own, ordering five or six dishes yields enough sauces and chutneys to liven them up every which way. Better still is the boneless Chennai fried chicken ($6.95 for a bucket), which could benefit from a little more than a small wedge of lime but whose thin batter makes for a nice alternative to all the Korean fried chickens and buttermilk dredges around town. They’re addicting, frankly. One weak performer was the lamb tandoori salad ($13.95), a wan mishmash of greens over cold rice — why? — and a virtually undetectable dill-raita dressing.
While $7.50 might be a bit steep for 12 ounces, a mango-cardamom lassi is hard to beat. Cardamom can take over everything if you let it, but this was nicely balanced — and the yogurt neutralizes any excess heat from all the chutneys. Dosa by DOSA opens at 8 a.m. every day but Sunday, and then at 9 a.m., so the list of non-alcoholic drinks is long. Apart from masala chai and all the standard coffee drinks, there’s turmeric iced tea, a spiced tepache made with fermented pineapple, fresh-squeezed sugarcane juice, and lots more.
The bar, though, runs all day, and nobody in either the Q.C. or creativity departments took a snooze on the job. There’s a G&T — cardamom again — and a magnificently named Fenugreek Molecule that’s made with scotch, oloroso sherry, fenugreek, maple, bitters, Gran Classico, and orange peel. But, as is quickly becoming de rigeur at fast-casual spots with liquor licenses, there are two boozy slushies. The monchichi vodka has coconut, pineapple, lime, green cardamom, and nutmeg, while the shoeflower cooler comes with rum, passion fruit, ginger, orange, lime, Lo-Fi gentian amaro. Pick your extremely floral poison from an equatorial latitude. (A shoeflower is a hibiscus, if that helps.)
Dosa by DOSA’s interior is like the Chartres Cathedral of barns, with skylights and a two-story mural depicting Chandni Chowk, Delhi’s famous Moonlight Square market. No one behind the counter was able to say definitively what had previously occupied the address, but the 3,600-square-foot space is part of The Hive, the postindustrial food-retail-live-work space that’s also home to Calavera, Drake’s Dealership, Firebrand Bread, and a Humphry Slocombe cart. It’s big but it’s not loud, and you won’t feel like you’re sitting on top of any other tables — although you may find yourself getting up several times for more cutlery, napkins, share plates, and water refills. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but civilization is in the hand of the dosa holder.
Dosa by DOSA, 2301 Broadway, Oakland, 510-285-6823 or dosabydosa.com