Despite, or perhaps because of, my recent negative experience with Rasoi, I’ve been on a tear to explore Indian food options in San Francisco. Sadly, this city is notoriously devoid of truly authentic Desi fare. Our options generally range fromt the down-and-dirty-but-more-authentic (like Pakwan) to the predictable-curry-house (like Rasoi and Spicy Bite). The recent addition of Dosa, in the space that was formerly Spiazzino, Three Ring, Val 21 and that fleeting Cajun place, added a new element to the landscape.
Dosa purports to serve South Indian fare, which to me implies heat and plenty of it. From its opening, the buzz surrounding this place has been palpable indicating, at least in my mind, a genuine desire for something new and different in this category. Heck, even Sunset Magazine has picked up on Indian being the new fusion — albeit too late to save my beloved Tallula.
Fellow foodies made a futile attempt to penetrate the barrier of Mission hipsters on a recent rainy evening. However, our friend Anita discovered that they do in fact take reservations for groups of five or more. Hence six of us descended upon Dosa last night. Full notes after the jump.
Our reservations were for 6:30. Three of us arrived on the earl side and were greeted cheerfully by the hostess, who offered to seat us outright. This is remarkable, as we hadn’t announced our reservations, and Dosa is notoriously difficult to get into as a walk-in. Mind you, the restaurant was nearly empty at that hour. We sidled up to the bar and awaited our cohorts. Within minutes, the place was packed.
At the bar, the adorable young hipster bartendress attended to our needs, offered some suggestions from the wine list and called us each sweetie. The wine list goes exactly where I want it to for the type of food we were expecting (caveat: I didn’t really look at the reds): Crisp, fruity wines with enough sweetness and acidity to cut through richness and spice. DPaul and Hugh each had a glass of the dry Mosel Riesling, which had pleasant mineral flavors and a sharp pear-apricot note. I figured it was worth trying one of their soju cocktails to test their mettle. Soju is not someting I gravitate toward normally — in cocktails, I’ll take my liquor full strength, thanks — but again given the cuisine and, well, the fact that they only have a beer and wine license, what the heck. I wasn’t in the mood for anything rich or creamy, like the soju lassi drink, so I tried the appropriately named Lychee Lush, which is really simply a lychee infusion. It was sweet and light, and the exotic lychee flavor even brought out an almost whiskey-like note in the soju. This would have been a satisfactory complement to the meal itself.
Once the rest of the crew arrived, we were seated pretty promptly. Unfortunately, the tables in the main dining room are rather too tightly packed; ours backed up against a couple of bar stools, and that also unfortunately was meant to be the primary conduit of traffic to the tables deeper in the restaurant. Hence, I spent the rest of the evening getting bumped in the back of the head with people’s butts.
The menu is a bit overwhelming at first — initially for the diversity of unfamiliar items, then by the seeming similarity between many of them, at least in base ingredients. Our waitress guided us a bit on ordering tips: A couple of appetizers, maybe a salad, and either three dosas and two entrées or vice versa between us should be sufficient. We had:
Pleasant way to start a meal — not a big departure from your standard bean salad. Firm chickpeas were dressed in a light vinaigrette with red onion and cilantro. Refreshing.
These were lentil dumplings swimming in a yogurt-based sauce with mint and tamarind, served cold. The dumplings are vaguely ring-shaped, more triangular, and have an earthy taste; the yogurt sauce complemented it nicely. Still, seeing brown rings floating in white did make me think of oversized breakfast cereal.
Excellent little croquettes full of firm peas fried perfectly. Nicely spiced, again earthy and faintly piquant. Delicious.
Paneer dosa, egg dosa
OK, the dosas are huge. HUGE. Our server led us to believe that one per person would be an appropriate entrée, but truthfully I don’t know that I could tackle one of these puppies. Folded in thirds like a giant crêpe, they hang over the edges of the dish by a solid inch or so. They did stick to the dosa paradigm — crispy on the outside, soft on the inside. The two were fairly interchangeable in my mind, but I seem to remember liking the egg one slightly better.
Rava masala dosa
This one was completely different. Rather than being crêpe-y, this dosa had an almost lace-like look to it, and tasted of lentil and black pepper as opposed to the mild sweetness of the others. It was more robustly filled with potatoes and caramelized onions. Much heartier.
All dosas are served with coconut chutney, tomato chutney and sambar (lentil dipping sauce) — only the last of the three really stood out in my mind and which I kept coming back to.
Tamil Lamb Curry
This was a standout dish. The lamb was tender and flavorful, all choice cuts. Rather than being a homogenous paste of curryness, the curry bristled with distinct flavors — ginger, coriander, cumin and cardamom each asserted themselves individually. I could have eaten a lot more of this.
Prawn Coconut Masala
Also excellent, though spiced a little more gently so as not to obliterate the prawns. Had I not tried the lamb, I would have loved this as much.
Another almost comically large item, this round of fried, puffed bread eclipsed the plate it came on. It had a lovely flaky texture. Delicious with the sambar.
We had a bottle of Riesling Kabinett, somewhat sweeter and fruitier than the Mosel that DPaul and Hugh had had earlier, but ultimately in my mind a superior complement to the food.
Service was overall very good, efficient and pleasant.
Complaints? Few. They could lose the bar stools next to the foremost dining table. And while the food was well spiced, it was never really scorching hot. This is Indian food for people who don’t like Indian food, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But if you are going to advertise yourself as a South Indian restaurant, it might be nice to offer the option of getting the volcanic heat that comes part and parcel thereof. If you’re serious about eating here without an hour-plus wait, get a group and make reservations. Still, I’ll be back, even if just to have a Lychee Lush and a dosa at the bar.
995 Valencia St, at 21st