It was a decade ago that Madras Palace first began dealing dosas out of a narrow storefront on lower Lexington Avenue. These delectable vegetarian crepes are made from a batter of ground rice and urad dal (a tiny beige bean) that’s allowed to ferment into frothiness over a period of a day or two. With a vigorous swirling motion the batter is spread on a griddle, heaped with a potato mixture, then rolled into a thick blunt. It’s served with a dense coconut chutney for scooping, and a thin soup called sambar for dipping and drinking. Though the pancake part has been around southern India since the 10th century, the idea of stuffing and rolling probably came from the French, who plied the Coromandel Coast south of Madras in the 17th century.
Chennai Garden, a new and elegant walk-down café named after the modern moniker of metropolitan Madras, specializes in dosas and snacks—such as iddlies (ricey dumplings) and utthapams (thicker pancakes with vegetables mixed into the batter)—created by similar means. There are 14 types of dosa alone ($6.45 to $8.95). To the untrained eye they are barely distinguishable. Masala dosa is queen mother of all, as long as a baseball bat and toasty brown in color, invariably evoking oohs and aahs from Indians and non-Indians alike as the waiter bears it in like a retainer carrying a pasha’s crown. Take away the potato stuffing and call it a paper dosa. The unfilled variety demonstrates that to its most ardent fans, the real payoff is not the filling but the crispy pancake. For the cost-conscious diner, however, that wad of starchy stuffing also containing cashews, dal, onions, and cilantro in a mild masala makes the treat a full meal.
At Chennai Garden I encountered gunpowder masala dosa for the first time. It was similar to the regular masala dosa, but the inside of the pancake had been hosed with a crumbly red substance that made it hotter than hell. Rava dosa substitutes cream of wheat and rice flour for the dal and rice in the batter, making a smoother and more refined crepe with a less grassy flavor that cooks up lacy like Swiss cheese. The onion variety is particularly recommended, though be forewarned it comes out as a square rather than a tube. Finally, there are a couple of modern variations on the dosa formula, including one that mixes lightly sautéed shiitake mushrooms and potatoes.
Just how the vegetarian South Indian restaurants turned kosher is a story best left for another time and place. Suffice it to say these oddball establishments have been a formidable presence for 10 years, now numbering five in Curry Hill, the waggish name for Murray Hill’s Indian commercial zone. Chennai Garden is the most ambitious and delicious, featuring a good representation of what South Indian vegetarians eat. In addition to dosas, iddlies, and utthapams, the menu includes vegetable curries from northern India, and a handful of specialties from Gujarat, the impoverished state in western India where fully half the residents are named Patel. Especially recommended is undhiyu ($8.95), a buttery curry featuring the ungainly combo of eggplant, orange yams, and snow peas. Or take a walk on the wild side with kala chana. But brace yourself, since it features one of Gujarat’s favorite veggies—black chick peas.