Our winsome waiter with the dark eyes of a Bollywood star wanted to know how our obviously non-Indian group knew about the South Indian crepes called dosas. We told him we had long been fans of the restaurant's namesake specialty. Large, lacy and slightly crunchy, they're made from a fermented lentil and rice flour batter and stuffed with a potato-based filling.
Dosas, I quickly found out, are not the only draw at Dosa Diner in Hicksville. The small vegetarian restaurant offers a range of South Indian dishes not common to the mostly Northern Indian establishments that have opened their doors in this area.
After eating the restaurant's deftly prepared bhel puri (a mixture of puffed rice, onion, chili, tomato, coriander, tamarind and mint, that's a chili-fired treatment of Rice Krispies), it was easy to understand why it's popularly sold as a street snack in India. Rava idly, a steamed wheat cake made with nuts, was ideal when dunked, doughnut-style, into the zesty, soupy sambal that accompanied it. I enjoyed the rasam, a bright tomato-based spice soup, as well as the spicy mulligatawny, a thick, palate-jolting puree of coconut and lentils.
The category of dishes listed on the menu as "heavens" (they don't involve dosas) are served with either rice, poori (fried puffed bread) or roti (flat bread). I was partial to the palak paneer, a creamy melange of spinach and cheese. But the peppery, vinegary blast I expected from the vindaloo vegetable paneer, heavy on the potatoes, was missing.
"We can make anything as spicy as you like," said owner Ashok Nataraj, confirming my suspicion that the kitchen tends to tame dishes ordered by non-Indians who don't voice preferences.
In India, dosas are usually eaten early in the day, but I prefer them, here, at dinner. True, those sampled at a lunch buffet had been made to order, but they were scantly filled, in comparison to the ones I had at night. I was pleased with the cheese mysore masala dosa (a spiced crepe filled with onion, potato and cheese) and even more impressed with the subtly fiery gun powder dosa, its batter boosted by spicy lentil powder. A spinach masala dosa had the spinach fried right into the crepe, which encased a potato filling dotted with peas and carrots.
A dosa variation, kal dosa with vegetable khorma, translated into a thicker crepe with a creamy vegetable-potato interior. I loved the fluffy texture of the utthapam, plump and flat, its filling on top rather than within.
At the lunch buffet, I sampled some dishes that were not on the menu. A particularly alluring one was tindindura (a thick green vegetable that looked like a miniature pickle and tasted a bit like a green bean) sauteed to flavorful effect with coconut, mustard seeds, poppy seeds and onions. A stew of bitter melon was simultaneously sweet, bitter, spicy and haunting.
Least cloying of the very sweet desserts was mango kulfi, cubes of fruity Indian ice cream.
A friend who has a beef against vegetarian restaurants had his preconceptions shattered by Dosa Diner. "I thought coming here would be like watching water boil," he told me. Instead, he said, it was like having front row seats at a fireworks display.