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