Flatiron Lunch: Saravanaa is a Veggie Delight

Every Friday our man UltraClay goes south of the ML boundaries in search of a delicious lunch. Sometimes it’s Murray Hill south or the Flatiron District, sometimes Gramercy and everything in between- but we just like to call it Flatiron Lunch. He’s still out of the country this week, so Brian has stepped in to take over.

Apart from a wonderful lunch last year at Bhojan and an occasional dosa or chaat here and there, I don’t have too much experience with vegetarian Indian food. I tend to stick with protein heavy chicken biryanis or lamb kormas. But after my recent lunches at Saravanaa, I think it might officially be my favorite ethnic take on meatless food. There’s no tofu or fake meat here, just good old fashioned vegetables, beans, and spices.

Saravanaa Bhavan is a large international chain restaurant with locations in India, Canada, Singapore, and France. I was concerned it would be the Applebee’s or Chipotle of Indian vegetarian cuisine, but I was comforted when I entered and none of the waiters were wearing flair of any sort and the chairs all had cushions.

It seems they could have had a bit more energy though. Service is notoriously bad here and while I didn’t encounter too much trouble, the guy next to me was pissed that they couldn’t get his order for a glass of Shiraz right. After he complained about the wait time, they brought him a rosé instead.

I decided to skip the wine, but took advantage of their thali lunch special. It’s a bit of a splurge at $11.50, but compared to the $16.95 it normally costs, I felt like I was getting some sort of deal.

I love thalis because you get to try a little bit of everything and it saves me the agony of making a decision. And with ten silver cups full of veggie goodies, I certainly got my money’s worth.

I asked the waitress if she could tell me what each dish was and she had some difficulty. I don’t think it was a language barrier, but rather a service issue. She told me one was mixed vegetables, another one was a combination of vegetables, and another was a soup. Thanks a lot!

So I wasn’t sure of everything I was eating, but for the most part, they were all diverse and full of flavor, texture, and oftentimes quite a bit of spice. I spotted  a cup of tangy raita to cool down the heat and some rice, chapati, and papad to support each curry.

I especially enjoyed the two soups – the sambar had a touch of sweet and sourness (from tamarind?) mixed with the hearty lentils, while the rasam was much lighter and had clean lemony and floral notes. Both had the perfect amount of heat.

There was a tasty stew composed of potatoes, creamy coconut milk, and plenty of mustard seeds.

Another dish also featured potatoes, this time fried and slightly mashed with herbs and peas.

I also enjoyed a creamy, crunchy mixed vegetable dish that reminded me of cole slaw – it was surprisingly refreshing and spicy. There was a cup full of pungent red pickles that was a bit overwhelmingly acidic and spicy for my tastes. But the sweet mound of nuts and honey for dessert was a perfect cooling finish to the meal.

A few days later I returned after the lunch rush when the dining room wasn’t as bustling. Strangely enough, service was more apathetic and unhelpful. But this time I had come in specifically to try their dosas. I was kicking myself I didn’t order them the first time around.

There is a menu of more than 30 dosas and uthappams, with only a few above  the $10 mark. The choices were a bit overwhelming, so I stuck with what I know and picked the Masala Dosa.

The dosa came out and I was a little sad to see it broken in the center. I also have a feeling it was sitting around in the kitchen for a while because the potatoes were not terribly hot. Other than that, it was a really great dosa – a fluffy, crisp crepe encompassing a flavorful mash of spiced potatoes.

It was served with more of that rich sambar and three really delicious chutneys – the cilantro chutney had a nice subtle, herbal spicicness; the coconut chutney was rich and milky; and the tomato chutney had just a touch of sweetness, with spicy notes of earthy chocolate at the end.

Bad service and lukewarm food aside, this is some really flavorful, hearty food. I’m still learning all my vegetarian Indian dishes, so I’m sure I’ll get some clarification in the comments. But in the meantime, I’ll be returning to Saravanaa to work my way through their menu.

The + (What somebody who likes this place would say)

  • Really great dosas
  • A chain restaurant that doesn’t feel like a chain
  • The food is fresh, flavorful, and hearty
  • Vegetarian food that doesn’t feel like you’re eating vegetarian food

The – (What somebody who doesn’t like this place would say)

  • Service verges on non-existent
  • Too many choices
  • This place can get crowded and hectic
  • Sometimes the food comes out broken and less than hot

Saravanaa Bhavan/Saravanaas, 81 Lexington Ave. (btw. 26+27th), 212-684-7755


  • putting the whole post on the main page? nice! stick it to the man.

    try the poori next time. soooo good.

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    To me, this is a _much_ better deal to me than paying almost the same price for a BLT and some chips with a piece of pickle. Also, for someone like me who has a hard time choosing since I would like to try a little of everything, this is perfect.

    Getting a second person in on this would be awesome though.

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    My favorite vegetarian lunch in the area is at Tiffin Wallah…and it’s a buffet! And it’s under $10! (last I checked) And you don’t miss the meat at all.

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    I actually haven’t been to Saravanaas in the States, have you tried Tiffin Wallah? I’ve found their food very tasty and the service good.

    The bad service doesn’t surprise me, customer service is a concept that’s nonexistent in South India (but tipping doesn’t really exist either, so I guess it works out there).

  • I’ve been to Saravanaas once and I also felt that the service wasn’t very good. I prefer Tiffin Wallah. I haven’t been lucky enough to try their $10 lunch buffet though. I like their rava masala dosa!

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    Oh, and when you go there you have to get the sour buttermilk with the dosa. Definitely a great spot.

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    Another vote for Tiffin Wallah. The service there is actually good. Whenever I go there if the manager I know is there he greets me with a smile and comes over to say hi.

    Saravanaas is full of assholes who don’t give a f*ck. They’re sons of bitches that wouldn’t piss on their own mother if she was lying in the gutter on fire.

    I’m Pakistani and grew up in Dubai and let me tell you, the South Indian restaurants back home have amazing service. I never felt that South Indians have bad service there. In fact, someone once told me it’s a religious thing for them to feed others so that’s why they’re so friendly. Not sure if it’s true or not but you can certainly feel the love.

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      hmm… I’m South Indian and whenever I visit my family back in India, we almost always have horrible service (unless they figure out I’m from the States and as a result know I’ll tip). The first couple of times I was a little put off, but my cousins were more confused that I’d expect anything more than food thrown on the table from a waiter.

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        Hmm, interesting. The South Indian restos in Dubai are very nice though. The waiters are always smiling, making suggestions and recommending stuff. The manager usually comes over to ask us how we’re doing as well. I mean, don’t get me wrong, we’ve had bad service at some places, but we get the manager and he sorts everything out. He usually seems embarrassed that one of his staff was rude to his customers.

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    Finally! A chain restaraunt that isn’t entirely disappointing and cliche! If you’re going to break the stereotype, you might as well do it with awesome indian food.

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    This link is over a year old, so maybe they’ve cleaned up their act, but I stopped going to Tiffin Wallah after they were referenced in a wage theft story.

    The food was great, the ethics not so much.

    One quick note about the write-up, specifcally the “Vegetarian food that doesn’t feel like you’re eating vegetarian food” line is a silly line. It obviously tastes like vegetarian food, that’s what it is. Usually when said food is bad is because it’s trying to fake being something else.

  • I was staying at the Imperial in New Delhi while this post was written and some Indians we were with took us to this South Indian restaurant with mobs out the door, day and night, right by the hotel. We finally got in and looked at the menu and saw “Also have locations on Lexington Ave, NYC…” etc. It was was branch of this chain. Flew to India to eat at a restaurant with a branch in NYC. Oh well.

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