The garden of earthy delights

Thursday, January 31st, 2008

With dishes and spices like these, it would be easy

Mark Laba

Pradeep Thankappan with several specialties from the restaurant Saravanaa Bhavan.

Saravanaa Bhavan

Where: 955 W. Broadway

Payment/reservations: Major credit cards, 604-732-7700

Drinks: Wine, beer and soft drinks

Hours: Open everyday, lunch 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.; dinner, 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.

For many years, the only reason I thought vegetables existed were to plump up animals to get them ready for eating. Potatoes didn’t count since they came from the Mr. Potato Head species, which, as we know, are a few notches up in the human-evolution chain.

Then I saw Vincent Price in The Abominable Dr. Phibes and in one scene he drips Brussels-sprout juice all over the face of a sleeping victim and then lets a swarm of locusts loose in the room.

The results, for a 10-year-old, were inspiring and from then on I thought, boy, vegetables are cool.

Still, it’s not often that I go out of my way to engage in a full-on veggie gorge-fest but if any place was to tempt me, it was this new enterprise. Well, new to Vancouver but really this chain of restaurants that began in Chennai and specializes in Southern Indian cooking has blossomed into 48 locations around the globe.

Called up my old pal Boris “Cast Iron Stomach” Keplinksy and ducked into the svelte new digs. A big space in almost all-beige hues with booth seats at the back, a buffet table running down the centre of the room and an image of Ganesha, the elephant-headed god, to greet you at the door.

“It’s nice you invite me to this place,” Boris said. “I need to balance my digestive tract. If I eat another fatted calf, I think I’ll burst.”

“Boris, this joint should lube your chakras perfectly and get you rolling on the spiritual autobahn of your being in no time.”

“Use language like that around me again and I hit you, OK?”

The afternoon buffet is a great way to sample the intrigues and intricacies of South Indian spicing. And at $8.99 for a selection of more than 20 items, it’s a long and winding road through an edible landscape not common on these shores. Idli (cakes of black lentil and rice), doughnut-shaped vada, vatral kozhambu (a Tamil soupy curry), rava kichadi (roasted sooji or semolina cooked with onion, tomato, green chilies, carrots and green peas) or pachadi (chopped veggies cooked up with coconut, chilies, mustard seed and ginger and is a tasty side dish for savoury lentil curry).

I also sampled the Saravanaa Special Meal ($8.95) that came with channa masala, sambar, kulambu (a spicy eggplant curry), puffy poori bread, and more veggie curries that kept me guessing as to their contents. From pungent to sweet, sour to spicy, this place packs it all in with a kaleidoscope of flavours. And the spicing was enough to give old “Cast Iron” a run for the money.

Also check out the dosa (rice crêpes with a perfect texture) listings. I tried the kara dosa with onion and potato, served up with coconut, mint and tomato chutney and sambar. Truly inspiring, as are most of the dishes prepared here, with ingredients and spicing as ethereal and esoteric as a list of Hindu deities. Some of the breads could be served warmer, though.

Mmm. It’s like my tastebuds have just read the Upanishads,” Boris commented.


Meditations on a veggie way of living

RATINGS: Food: B+ Service: B+ Atmosphere: B

© The Vancouver Province 2008


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