285 S. Broadway, Hicksville
SERVICE: Professional and speedy
AMBIENCE: Sleek and modern with a slight hint of hospital cafeteria.
ESSENTIALS: Open 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 to 10 p.m. Monday to Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday. Wheelchair accessible; all credit cards, parking lot.
What are the elements required for good, authentic foreign cuisine? A skilled chef, the right ingredients and a discerning native customer base.
Everything is in place at Saravanaa Bhavan, the 5-month-old outpost of an international Indian chain with restaurants in New York City and New Jersey, among other American locales. Hicksville has long been the epicenter of Indian culture and cuisine on Long Island. As the community has prospered and multiplied, the markets and restaurants that serve it have grown larger and more sophisticated. Saravanaa Bhavan is one of this new breed of establishments that welcomes newcomers as well as immigrants looking for a taste of home. The sleek, modern design befits a successful chain and is particularly inviting during the day, when light streams in from two directions.
“Indian cuisine” doesn’t really exist; the subcontinent is about as large and diverse as Western Europe. Saravanaa Bhavan serves vegetarian cuisine mostly from Southern India, which has a large vegetarian population. The chain was founded in Chennai, India, in 1981 by P. Rajagopal, well known for his business acumen and also for a 2003 homicide conviction. (He is currently out on bail pending an appeal).
The menu lists more than 100 items and does a pretty good job of describing them. Still, it’s easy for a rookie to get overwhelmed. If you are on your own, consider the southern thali meal. This is a daily selection of about a dozen dishes including curries (on one occasion, cauliflower, eggplant, tomato), chutneys, pickles and sweets (perhaps chilled noodles with tapioca), each in a little metal bowl and all ringed around a pot of short-grain rice covered with a papad (crisp bean wafer) and a chapati (wheat flatbread). An old-school Indian diner will dump a little rice onto the tray, moisten it with one of the vegetables, then, using the right hand, blend the two and pop the mixture into the mouth in an amazing display of dexterity. But don’t worry, tables are set with forks and spoons.
One of the highlights of the Southern Indian kitchen is the dosa, a manhole-cover-sized crepe cooked crisp on one side, porous on the other, which is rolled up or folded crispy side out. Saravanaa Bhavan makes more than two dozen types, each with its own flavor and filling. Here’s a cheat sheet: Regular dosas are made from a fermented batter of rice and lentils. Paper dosas are super thin and even bigger. The underside of a Mysore dosa is brushed with a spicy chutney before being rolled. Any dosa described as “masala” is folded around a big blob of silken potatoes mashed with onions and warm spices.
The stars of the show here are the rava dosas, made with a wheat-rice batter that is not spread evenly onto the griddle but drizzled on, Jackson Pollock style, to make a crisp, lacy bathmat. The batter contains little treasures — whole peppercorns, pieces of cashew nuts and, in the case of the onion rava dosa, shards of red onion. The onion rava masala dosa, stuffed with those silken potatoes, will change the way you think about Indian food.
Other gems: Channa batura is a puffy, hollow, deep-fried wheat bread (size and shape of a birthday balloon) that is served with a rich stew of tender chickpeas. Mini ghee idli, adorable little steamed lentil-rice disks, are immersed in savory sambar broth and splashed with ghee, the clarified butter that is India’s preferred cooking fat.
I have a well-documented case of Indo-gluco-phobia (fear of super-sweet Indian desserts) but my South Indian pal insisted I try the badam halwa, and I loved it: a creamy paste of ground almonds, butter and honey. Another new one on me: Madras filter coffee, cut with chicory (like New Orleans’ Café du Monde) and topped with a little hat of steamed milk.
I was lucky to have two Indian experts guiding my meals at Saravanaa, but all the professional help you need is right there in the dining room: The servers are friendly, knowledgeable and happy to help you navigate the intricacies of the menu. And anyway, it’s hard to go wrong when almost everything costs less than $12.