Selection bias is interesting. Loyal readers of this internet space would notice a paucity of poor reviews of things and experiences – mostly because the stuff I tend to write about are things that leave positive impressions, or restaurants I pick out because it was highly regarded by somebody. I am not someone who likes “everything”. The following is proof.
Oh, South Indian cuisine. The cuisine of my childhood, native comfort food to me, but really hard to find well if you don’t have a parent like my mother. Alas, that describes 300 million Americans, lucky me. Anyway, in DC, I’ve checked out the buffet at Minerva, which is quite estimable. While it is not the whole hog comfort of my home – it’s pretty damn good, and the meat dishes (which in a vegetarian house I never experienced) were even better than that. After much rumination, I decided to take the second plunge at Fairfax’s Saravana Palace. The restaurant was named in the Washingtonian in the past, although recent reports of the restaurant were less optimistic. I still had a lilt in my heart, so why not, right?
The decor is kind of typical of every mainstream South Asian place I know. Not fancy, good sized space, a bit of a cacaphony from kids. But all in all typical, aside from some silly Bollywood songs playing on the wall. Anyway, I ordered a bowl of muligatawny soup, tamarind rice and pav bhaji, the chaat masala/bread dish with a salt lassi (a yogurt beverage) – LG had a South Indian Thali – a chef’s selection variety of sauces, sambhars, rice etc. For a good taste at a restaurant, Thali is always sound. The first warning sign came when the waiter (who seemed Indian, but had jheri curls of some kind, or at least used the volumes of gel to create that effect) said they did not have salt lassi. This perturbed me since they had sweet lassi in inventory, and besides, how do you not have SALT? Not having mango pulp, that’s another kettle of fish. (figuratively, being that this is a vegetarian place and all)
The muligatawny soup was competent, but not earth shattering. The heat was there, but no real depth besides that. The pav bhaji was actually pretty well done. It had good flavor, the good savory combination. That said the raw onions and chilis places atop the masala was chopped too coarsely which did not fit with the rest of the texture profile of the dish. What I did not realize was that this would be the high point of the meal. The South Indian Thali as reported by LG was pretty much a failure in every component except for the yogurt rice – and that’s because yogurt is hard to corrupt by a chef. The good parts of the thali were merely unremarkable, while the bad parts were pretty bad – especially a halwa (a sweet) which was … well, not halwa, not in any planet I grew up on. All this set up was the tamarind rice. Tamarind rice is a common temple food, real block and tackling. It is a good hot and sour taste with some sweet notes when done well. I did tell the waiter that I can handle native heat, and indeed they supplied it, but with nothing else. For some reason the dried chili was all that came through, while the sour, sweet, lovely flavor just did not materialize in the least. Minerva – you are still the champ for now. How does a place not have SALT???!!!!!