Tamil Nadu is India’s southernmost state, a sweltering region of flat alluvial plains, palm trees in swaying lines, and few rivers—but many irrigation ditches. The state is also known for its stunning religious architecture, most famously the Meenakshi Temple, a rambling complex dedicated to a three-breasted goddess who lost her supernumerary teat after she met her future husband, Lord Shiva. Built from the 12th through the 18th centuries, the temple boasts 12 towers called gopuras—among which monkeys frolic—and an astonishing 33 million statues.
The most impressive of these gopuras graces the menu of Tamil Nadu Bhavan, a new, strictly vegetarian Indian restaurant on lower Lexington Avenue. While most of the restaurants on the west side of the street feature the vegetarian fare of South India, Tamil Nadu Bhavan does so almost exclusively, eschewing the additional Northern Indian and Gujarati fare that characterize its brethren establishments. The restaurant has been amalgamated from a pair of luckless storefronts that have housed many previous Indian restaurants. A darkling interior space is reserved for banquets, while the sunny corner dining room serves the walk-in trade. With its extensive thatching, yellow-and-brown color scheme, and rusticated woods, it might remind you of a Mexican village. A flat-screen TV is tuned to Bollywood musicals, jocular Indian quiz shows, and grim coverage of South Asian floods, with people carrying their possessions on their heads as they wade in waist-deep water.
The dosa list consists of 20 or so selections, including the usual dosas, masala dosas, and mysore masala dosas. Turn rather to the atypical varieties, among which find ghee roast—an unspeakably rich wrapper flooded with clarified butter ($8.95), with no stuffing. Also worth trying is the “5 foot family dosa” ($19.95), a crisp pancake worthy of P.T. Barnum. It’s so big, you could wrap a good-size child up inside. The menu warns: “Not for takeout.”
Indeed, exotic dosa architecture is the forte of Tamil Nadhu Bhavan. Equally impressive is the paper dosa, thinner and crisper than usual article. It arrives wound into a cone reminiscent of Madonna’s pointy brassieres. Other dosas are folded into triangles, like the street crepes sold in Montparnasse, Paris—causing me to believe that dosas are descended from French crepes. (The French maintained a small colony called Pondicherry in Tamil Nadu for four centuries.) The triangular “Tamil Nadu kara dosa” ($8.95) comes stuffed with an onion mixture sautéed to caramelization—and if that isn’t French, I don’t know what is.
The restaurant offers a series of full meals known as thalis. Though not presented on a banana leaf, these signature set meals are virtually unreconstructed from their South Indian models. “Tamil Nadu thali” ($13.95) arrives on a round stainless-steel tray with many small receptacles around its periphery. Few are solid curries; most take the form of soups, intended to be poured over the mountain of basmati rice in the center of the tray. Two breads—a pale papadam and a disappointingly heavy poori—rest atop it; there’s a dab of acidic red pickle, too. Of the soupy entities, rasam is tart and tamarind-laced, while kulambu, thickened with coconut powder, glints paler and yellower. For scooping with the breads, there’s kurma—mixed vegetables in a mild nut sauce.
Ultimately, you’ll come to the conclusion that South Indian vegetarians eat lots of starches and lentils. Nothing represents this principle more clearly than the restaurant’s “mini-meal” ($11.95). This starchy tuck-in is more voluminous than the name implies, including three bowls of rice, a crunchy papadam, an eggplant curry called poriyal, and a glowing orange dessert based on cream of wheat.
But the rices are clearly the mini-meal’s focus. Sounding like a toiletry marketed in hell, bisibelabath is a dense clump of mahogany-colored rice dotted with lentils. It’s a cousin of kedgeree, a throwback to the British Raj still relished in England. The “special rice of the day” occupying the second slot is often basmati rendered even whiter by shaved fresh coconut, and served with a dab of mixed pickle. Most interesting of the three is curd rice, available separately on the menu for $5.95. While the word “curd” may conjure up either cottage cheese or a dissident faction in northern Iraq, in the inherited English of South India, it indicates plain tart yogurt. The curd rice swims in it, to puckeringly sour effect. Little Miss Muffet would have approved.