Subtle spice route leads to Saravanaa Bhavan

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      One of the misconceptions about Indian food is that a few bites should reduce your tongue to a raw, quivering mass that shrieks for relief. Another is that demanding “extra hot” or going further down the route to insanity with “suicide hot” or the ultimate “English hot” (as one Vancouver restaurant used to offer) is proof of off-the-scale masculinity. A third: Indian food is so oily and rich that you rise from the table feeling as though you’ve stuffed a bowling ball under your shirt.

      We culinary sophisticates know all of this is rubbish, of course, but no cuisine brings it home with more vigour than the food of southern India. Its signatures are complex spicing, lightness, and freshness—you never feel that these dishes have been simmering away for an eternity on the back burner.

      Opened a few months back on West Broadway, Saravanaa Bhavan bills itself as “the original taste of South India”. More than 25 years old, the Indian chain’s empire already included Oman, Singapore, Malaysia, the United Arab Emirates, the U.S., the U.K., and Eastern Canada before it extended its spice route to Vancouver.

      But don’t turn your nose up because this vegetarian restaurant is part of a chain. As our server pointed out, they don’t serve chili bajjis because they haven’t been able to find precisely the right kind of chilis locally. But onion bajjis they have, made with red onions, as is usual in India.

      Pink may be, in Diana Vreeland’s famous pronouncement, “the navy blue of India”, but not in this large room. Intelligent use of different floor levels makes it less cavernous. Décor is low-key neutrals and modern Indian art, and the ambient music is barely audible. The only wrong notes are the flat-screen TVs and the flashing lights behind the bar.

      Saravanaa Bhavan

      955 West Broadway,
      Open daily 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., 5 to 10 p.m.

      Back to the onion bajjis, which are brought to the table, like all dishes here, on a stainless-steel thali. The chickpea batter is brown and crunchy, the onions inside very slightly crisp and moist—it’s a textural high. On the side is a coconut chutney speckled with mustard seeds, and a sambal for dipping or dripping over the four little deep-fried cakes (one of the few South Indian dishes that aren’t steamed or roasted). Flavours are like having an orchestra in your mouth.

      Just as you identify one taste, another moves in. The heat level is medium—enough to leave an impact, though the testosterone crowd may complain. Other appetizers include the small steamed rice-and-lentil idly and various vada—lentil doughnuts. Served in a spiced broth with a fresh mint chutney, rasa vada looked like dumplings but were so light they almost melted on the tongue. Appetizers are large enough to share (and none is more than $5).

      “Is that fenugreek?” Ask, and if the affable, helpful servers don’t have the answer, they’ll find out. “House spice mixture” was the response to the fenugreek question, but I suspect a dozen spices, possibly more, went into the aloo gobi masala. This lidded dish consisting of chunks of potatoes and cauliflower in a thick sauce managed to be hot and sharp in the same instant, as well as creamily soft with bits of crispness when you chopped in the tomato and red onion served on the side. It was the best dish of the night.

      A sauce of thinned yogurt confetti-ed with tomato came with a mushroom pilaf, the fungi cooked down to concentrate their flavour, every rice grain separate. The only disappointment was an order of stuffed naan that, while it did have that slight charcoal taste you get from toasting bread over a gas flame, was a bit leaden.

      You can have dosas here too, those parchment-thin pancakes rolled around various fillings, as well as the lesser-known, thicker utthappam, also made with rice and lentils. A tomato omelette made with chickpea flour is something I plan to try next time, and one of those gleaming, silver-leaf-topped, fudgy desserts is also on the list. For drinks, you’ve got beer, wines, lassi, or frothy tea made authentically with evaporated milk. Barring a “special meal”, all dishes are under $8, and the lunchtime buffet is $9.40.