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Give me a vada over a Krispy Kreme any day. These savory doughnuts often have a hole in the middle—just like the sugar-glazed sort—but are instead made from spiced lentil flour. There are plenty of places to get South Indian vadas (pronounced “waa-daas”), but it’s hard to find a good one that’s freshly fried. Recently, I discovered a restaurant where you can crunch on excellent vadas with various chutneys, or eat them paired with idli, dunked in lentil soup, bobbing in sambar, or soaking in a thick blanket of spiced yogurt. And that’s just the vada selection. This restaurant fashions 13 different kinds of dosas and six species of utthappam, all of them made with a skill and care that can’t be faked. So I’m going out on a very wobbly limb and declaring that Staten Island has a restaurant worth trekking to—the forgotten borough has just scored its first South Indian eatery, and it’s among the very best in the city.
Dosa Garden (which makes me think of crispy crepes poking up out of the ground) is situated on the stretch of Victory Boulevard where a scattering of Sri Lankan businesses has cropped up to serve the island’s growing Sri Lankan community. It shares the block with an Albanian mosque and is about a mile down the road from a Hindu temple. (So much for Staten Island being homogenous.)
Sri Lanka’s majority ethnic group is Buddhist Sinhalese. But the largest minority group is Tamil, who are mostly Hindu and ethnically Indian. Moha Chinniah, the co-owner of Dosa Garden, is from Sri Lanka, but identifies himself as Tamil. To sizzle up the dosas and vadas, Chinniah brought over Tamil chefs from Chettinad, a southern region in the Indian state Tamil Nadu, which is separated from Sri Lanka by just a 40-mile strait of water. So, the South Indian–style food at Dosa Garden could be further categorized as Tamil, although trying to neatly sort subcontinental food is like differentiating between an infinite set of Russian dolls—they’re impossibly, deliciously complex.
The menu is encyclopedic and offers dishes that are both veg and non-veg (the common Indian idioms for vegetarian and carnivorous). Along with the dosas and the utthappams (spongy, tangy rice and lentil-flour pancakes), there’s a selection of homemade breads like roti and paratha, tandoori meats, and a short list of Sri Lankan and Indo-Chinese specials. The kitchen has a tandoor clay oven, where the fresh breads and grilled meats are charred.
In my mind, the dishes that make Dosa Garden worth a trip are the iconic South Indian specialties such as idli, dosa, vada, and utthappam, as well as the remarkable Chettinadu curries.
Idlis—steamed rice cakes—are warm and springy. Pick up one of the moist white pucks and dip it in the sambar (spicy vegetable soup) or, even better, the creamy, incendiary tomato chutney. Most items at Dosa Garden are served with the same three accompaniments: the sambar, which is quality but could be spicier; a very fine coconut chutney studded with mustard seeds; and the fantastic tomato chutney.
Thayir vada, two lentil doughnuts swimming in whole-milk yogurt, is augmented with scatterings of fried green chilies, mustard seeds, fresh curry leaves, and whole black peppercorns. The peppercorns, which show up all over the menu, have a delicious, fragrant bite. A friend who has family in South India insisted that the pepper was of such good quality that it had to be straight from the region.
The dosas run from the ordinary—like masala dosa, the tangy rice-lentil crepe filled with spiced potatoes—to the more deluxe—chicken dosa, egg dosa, onion rava masala dosa. All are made to order and are impeccable: crispy, pleasantly chewy, slightly sour, and greaseless. The Mysore masala dosa is a delicate golden slab, teetering across the plate, smeared lightly with a dry, garlicky chutney and filled with spiced potatoes. My only complaint is that Dosa Garden’s potato stuffing, usually bright yellow with turmeric and punched up with mustard seeds, curry leaves, and green chilies, is slightly underspiced.
The egg dosa conjured up all sorts of conjectures at our table: Would it be topped with a fried egg? Filled with a scrambled egg? It turned out to be much simpler than that—a plain dosa, painted thinly with egg wash on one side and wrapped into a cone—but worth ordering anyway. It’s so austere that it seems fit for an invalid (albeit one with very good taste).
If you want something more elaborate, the onion rava masala dosa is spectacular. Made with semolina wheat instead of fermented rice and lentils, the result is a lacy, crunchy sheet. The cooks at Dosa Garden embed peppercorns, curry leaves, green chilies, and cumin seeds in the batter, and then scatter fried onions over it.
The Chettinadu curry is made in fish, shrimp, chicken, or vegetable iterations. The spice-laden gravy is thick, chocolate-brown, and fragrant, and is full of mustard seeds. (It turns out that Chettinad, where the cooks are from, is known for spicy curries and beautiful architecture, and is fast becoming one of the top tourist spots for Indians.) Get the shrimp version—that’s how Chinniah likes it best—and you get lovely, fat shrimp bobbing in the flavorful brew.
One night, my table ordered (among many other things) the pan-fried tilapia appetizer. The nuggets of fish were stained orange with spice and had a fried crust that crunched through into moist fish. This is the sort of thing that could make us—three very loud women—stop shrieking furiously about Sarah Palin and just gaze in ravenous silence at the craggy lumps of fish—a serious accomplishment.