Fillmore: Jazz and Dosa
Fillmore jazz festival is around the corner. There will be music, swing lessons, can’t forget the American Lindy Hop championships, and, inevitably, barbecue. Last year, I was at such a happy high after an hour of listening to swingin’ tunes from a time before my own that I forgot my usual wariness of San Francisco barbecue and bought a pulled pork sandwich from one of the food stalls lining the street. Even the thought of the pasty bread and the dry flavorless pork is probably killing a few neurons in the taste centers of my brain. But I have an alternative this time.
I shall walk past the smoked brisket, pulled pork, and grilled sausages, mentally resolving to start saving money so I can eat Snow’s barbecue again, and walk right into Dosa, a South Indian restaurant on Fillmore. If all you have had of Indian food is cream laden saag paneer and tikka masala, doughy naans, and indifferent vegetarian curries, banish those thoughts from your mind.
We ate at Dosa last weekend and it was a delight to eat at a restaurant which didn’t reduce Indian food to a few sorry curries. We started with couple of cocktails, Juhu Palm and Bengali gimlet, with a plate of samosas. The cocktails were terrific, tasting of keffir leaves, rangpur lime, coconut milk, and mint. The samosas, pastry shells typically filled with a spicy potato-pea mixture, had enough spice heat to balance the cocktails.
For entrees, we ordered a sada paper dosa, a lamb kofta curry and ginger coconut fish cooked in banana leaf. Dosa, the namesake dish, is a crisp crepe made with fermented rice and lentil flours. The paper dosa was, unfortunately, not hot upon arrival at the table. But it tasted good, with the fermented taste a well-bred San Francisco sourdough loaf would be proud to have, wasn’t greasy and the accompanying lentil soup, sambar, was the best I have had in a Bay Area restaurant. For sambar, the toovar/toor lentils are cooked to softness and churned into a light soup, typically mixed with soft cooked vegetables such as eggplant or drumstick. My friends from South India tell me that the number of spices required for a sambar can reach 40, each individually roasted and ground … I usually make it with about a dozen. The aroma of spices, tanginess of tamarind, and the creaminess of the soup can combine into something sublime. I have found restaurant sambar to be a miss usually, but this one was a definite hit.
Coconut fish curry was served with a side of coconut rice and a relish made from unripe mangos. In India, fish is often cooked in banana leaf parcels. My grandmother used to make slow roasted fish wrapped in banana leaf parcels, on the dying ambers of coal fire. It used to taste divine. If roasted correctly, banana leaf lends a grassy flavor to the fish. I haven’t been able to replicate that taste with frozen banana leaf found in Mexican grocery stores here, to which, incidentally, I was directed by Roberto Rodriguez‘s recipe for puerco pibil. I didn’t find that grassy flavor at Dosa either but otherwise the fish was competently done, and the coconut rice and relish were well executed.
Finally, the lamb kofta – lamb meatballs in a coconut milk gravy. The meat was not greasy, the flavors were fresh and aromatic. The meatball could have been slightly softer but that would have meant fattier meat or addition of fillers.
We decided that we had not had our fill of dosas so we ordered a rava dosa to wrap up the meal. Rava dosa is a lacy version of the crepe – crispier due to addition of semolina. This crepe arrived hot at the table. The sambar however was different batch, and this time, it was closer to average. The encouraging part is that they do try different sorts of sambars with different dosas. I am hoping that the next time I am there they will have a yet another type of sambar with yet another type of dosa.
So we’ll see if this summer Jazz and dosa and beer will win over Jazz and pork and beer.