Saravanaa Bhavan’s vegetarian South Indian buffet

There’s very few places that are both worth trying and that I haven’t tried in my neighbourhood. I considered Kayan (Mediterranean) and Pondok (Indonesian) but had to listen to reviews and the most glowing were those for Saravanaa Bhavan from which I had previously tried a giant dosa upon suggestion by one of those lists of food to try in Vancouver. As a group, we once were at Saravanaa’s door for dinner but the dishes did not sound like what what we usually order and the menu was vegetarian, so we ended up at Maurya down the street. They have a great lunch box deal: just $5 for curry and rice. It might include naan, I can’t remember. Finally, there is a lunch buffet for $10.99 the items of which are listed on the menu, most convenient for my post-meal research.

Rafe looked around at the crowd out for a late lunch and was reassured it was a good pick by the number of Indians in the restaurant–we were pretty much the only non-Indian customers. He also felt like he was back in a school cafeteria with the food trays with the separate wells. Those trays are really great! The curry does not have to run into each other in a goopy mess. He followed my lead and put steamed rice, the largest portion by volume, in the large center circle and the curries all around. It was fun to arrange my curries and choices: a small sample of special rice, small portions of the palak gobi and chana masala I was not so sure to like, saving the largest curry well for paneer butter masala, and grouping the three dry items in the same well.

A waiter walked around offering us fresh masala dosa off the griddle and warm naan bread. The last time I had dosa, I ordered it by take out and ate it 20 minutes later when it was a soggy but tasty crepe. Straight off the griddle was the way to enjoy it–it was particularly thin on the edges, warm, lightly tangy like really thin (dare I say it?) injera bread. Since I had so many buffet items to work through, I only ate the crepe and not the “masala” potato and onions that were rolled up.

The three main curries offered were all so delicious. The most average was the chana masala that had meaty chickpeas and a real heat level. I really liked the palak gobi, cauliflower in a spinach sauce. It could have stood to be a little warmer but it was so delicious and health-tasting with rice. And then there was the paneer butter masala which I will just think of as “butter paneer”. South Indian cuisine or not, butter-blank is what the customer of an Indian establishment demands so Saravanna Bhavan has a vegetarian version using paneer that I consider to be like a cross between cheese and firm tofu. The “butter paneer” was nice, creamy, overall light, with great squishy paneer cubes. I also really liked the fried lentil doughnut. I did not actually enjoy the doughnut (vada) the way I was supposed to with yogurt dip or chutney but I like it just the same–fresh, lightly flavoured.

In Round 2, I picked up a little more “butter paneer” and palak gobi and tried the soup (really tangy and would have been a great starter) and a couple of desserts. Rafe and I made faces at the yogurt rice which was so weird, like plain yogurt stirred into rice. Not a dessert, not an entree, not sure where it fell. The bright orange paste is rava kesari, cream of wheat, and I learned how others feel trying Chinese desserts, expecting something as decadent tasting as it looks… and it is not. The rava was not horrible but it certainly did not compel me to continue eating it. My favourite dessert was kheer, known amongst the South Indians as payasam, rice boiled in milk and sugar with cardamom, saffron, pistachios, almonds, and vermicelli added. It reminds me of the comfort from a Chinese tapioca dessert although payasam is more delicately sweet.

When my co-workers go for a “fancier” lunch, escaping the everyday of going to City Square, we ended up often at the New India buffet a couple blocks east, offering a decent buffet for $12.95. I can see that New India has had really decent competition all these years with the Saravanaa buffet. As I reassured Rafe before we entered, not to worry that it is vegetarian fare–it will and did hit the spot!

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