For me, growing up in southern India, every morning would usually start with the same question. “What’s for breakfast?” My mother’s response never surprised me: “dosas.” Again. Growing up I was convinced I had eaten enough dosas to last me a whole lifetime, and I swore I’d never miss them.
But three months into my stay in New York, I started yearning for these large, round, crisp crepes. I was craving dosas and “medhu vadais” and various southeast Indian dishes. So with some friends, I decided to head out to Curry Hill where I was immediately pulled in by the aromas at chef Hemant Mathur’s restaurant Dosai, which opened in May.
At Dosai, the focus is on vegetarian dishes from the southeast Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Chef Hemnath Nagarajan, a native of Chennai, oversees day-to-day operations at the restaurant. “Dosas are liked by people all over the world, [yet] New York doesn’t seem to have many southeast Indian restaurants, thus we opened Dosai,” Nagarajan said. In Tamil Nadu, as well as on the restaurant menu, dosas are called dosai.
Dishes to Try
To start off, I had to get my favorite appetizer, Medhu Vadai ($6.95), a donut-shaped dumpling that is crispy on the outside and spongy on the inside—perfect for soaking up any, or all, of the different chutneys. I liked the tomato chutney best, with its sweet yet spicy smack on my palate. There are many other flavors to try, like lentil and coconut.
Indeed, to my non-Indian friends, the most fascinating part of eating this was not the donut itself, made of soaked, ground lentils and curry leaves, but the way it is eaten, by taking small bites and dipping them into chutneys and “sambhar” (lentil soup)—an orange-colored soup richly flavored with moringa tree pods. It gave a pleasantly warm feeling as it went down.
At restaurants, I usually have a strong urge to order the most popular dish, so at Dosai we made sure to try the Paper Masala Dosai ($11.50), a caramel-colored crepe filled with mildly spiced potatoes. It came just as crisp as the dosa back home, which surprised me.
Any dosa prefaced with the word “paper,” by the way, just means the crepe extends way beyond the plate (and filling). Dosa come in different wrapping styles. As a youngster, I always thought that dosas were so boring, and the only way my mother got my brother and I to eat them was to shape them into cones about the size of a hat.
Anything as delicious as a dosa always has a long preparation process. It all starts by soaking split “urad dal” (black lentils), raw rice, and fenugreek seeds overnight. The next morning this mix is ground and stored again for another night to ferment before the batter is ready to make dosa.
Then there is the Saffron Dosai ($13.95). It’s one of Dosai’s specialties and something that I had never heard of. I am used to finding saffron only in Indian sweets, so I was curious about it. The chef at Dosai soaks strings of saffron in milk for about two or three minutes to get the maximum flavor, then sprinkles the saffron-infused milk over the dosa while it’s cooking. The Saffron Dosai is served with jaggery syrup on the side, and not unlike with the Medhu Vadai and other dosas, is offered with sambhar, and three types of chutney—tomato, lentil, and coconut.
“At Dosai, we always try new things, and Americans like saffron, so we decided to try adding it to dosa, and people really like it,” Nagarajan said.
Tamil Nadu isn’t just known for its dosas, but also for its various rice specialties, and we couldn’t leave without trying them.
Bisi Bela Huliana ($8.50), a lunch dish that I often eat in India, is a thick, creamy, orange-colored rice dish with lentils and tamarind. It was the best part of the meal. The strong aroma of “ghee” (clarified butter) immediately transported me 8,000 miles to the Indian subcontinent. The taste of ghee was very prominent, with a slight tanginess at the end.
My friend, who was trying this dish for the first time, thought he could easily finish it. But after a few spoonfuls, the heartiness of the dish got to him, and he visibly slowed down.
With Indian cuisine, even the simplest looking dishes like the Coconut Rice ($8.50) harbor strong flavors waiting to explode in your mouth. Here the fresh coconut and dried red chilies were harmoniously balanced. It was a perfect pairing with the Beans Poriyal, green beans tossed in the same beguiling combination of fresh coconut and dried red chillies, ($13.95), which was mildly spiced and left us with the lingering, pleasant flavor of fresh coconut.
The authenticity of the food at Dosai won me over. The taste and aroma of the dishes were exactly what I would find at home.
With my nostalgia for southern Indian food cured, it’s safe to say I can now carry on without feeling homesick for a while at least.
104 Lexington Ave. (between 27th & 28th streets)
Sunday–Thursday noon–10 p.m.
Friday–Saturday noon–10.30 p.m