Saravana Palace is a vegetarian restaurant, which I knew would cause deviation from my familiar Indian dish orders. When I think of Indian food, I conjure pictures of Chicken Tikka Masala, Vindaloo and Korma. After three years in London, I became spoiled by the ability to run out for a curry, at any time of the day or night, and find amazing Indian cuisine just around the corner. Since returning to the U.S. not many Indian restaurants have lived up to my expectations. So when I first entered Saravana Palace I was happy to see the place busy and full of clientèle of the same ethnicity as the food being served, a sure sign that something authentic was brewing.
Many appetizers sounded intriguing. I had to try the Pav Bhaji, a luscious vegetable curry surrounded by toasted dinner rolls, beautiful and bubbling with heat. This is a traditional dish of Bombay and is sold on the streets, easy to grab and take with you on the beach side. It’s creamy, yet the vegetables still retained their texture in the simmering sauce. The Pani Puri, tiny little wheat shells stuffed with potatoes and chick peas, then garnished with spices and served with spicy water, is a treat. For those of you facing this dish for the first time, here’s how it’s done: pick up the hollow shell, poke a hole in the top with your finger, fill the shell with the chick pea and potato mixture, scoop up some spicy water and pop it in your mouth. You will look like a pro while reveling in a crunchy, spicy, citrus explosion.
I couldn’t resist the Paper Masala Dosa, extra long – and they mean long – rolled and filled with potato and onion curry. It arrived at the table a huge golden cone. Normally this size is ordered for fun, to entertain children, as it is quite an impressive sight, but I preach, and practice, that adults need fun too. I folded and broke the crisp shell with glee, making little packages of yellow curry, dipping them in all four sauces provided, tomato, lentil, peanut and coconut.
Gtthhi Vankaya, a Hyderabadi special, was filled with tender eggplant cooked in light gravy. Eggplant was deep purple, its meat barley clinging to the skin, not too mushy or too tough. The Kadi Pakora Curry – small vegetable fritters simmered in butter gravy with yogurt, thickened cream, almonds and cashew nut powder – revealed just a hint of nuttiness. It was spicy, but that zest was tamed by butter and yogurt.
The desserts ranged from sweet to savory. Gulab Jamoon, fried milk balls in sweet syrup flavored with cardamom seeds and rosewater or saffron, is syrupy, like round honey covered donuts. Madras Special, vermicelli fried in oil and poured into boiled milk, sweetened with sugar and topped with raisins and cashews, went down easily and was mildly sweetened. While the Yogurt Rice dessert – simply rice mixed with homemade yogurt and seasoned with spices – was not sweet at all, but instead was refreshing, a fresh finish. A steaming cup of Chai tea capped the meal and was imbibed slowly to enjoy all the warm sweet spiciness.
On the way out, sat the customary bowl of multicolored seeds. Usually this is a mixture of sugar-coated fennel seeds and fried fennel seeds, like an American after dinner mint. Spoon some into your hand, drop it into your mouth and chew, you can swallow it or spit it out. It doesn’t taste like mint, but it is an experience worth having, just like Saravana Palace.
11725 Lee Highway
Fairfax, VA 22030
Lunch Buffet: 11:30 a.m. – 3 p.m.
Dinner: Mon. – Fri.: 5 p.m. – 10 p.m.
Sat: 3 p.m. – 10 p.m.
Sun.: 3. p.m. – 9:30 p.m.