If you happen to stumble across Sai Krishna Bhavan and decide to stop in for some tandoori chicken or lamb curry, you’re in for a big surprise. Of the dozens of Indian restaurants in the Triangle, it’s one of a mere handful specializing in southern Indian cuisine. The menu is strictly vegetarian, and many dishes are spicier than you’ll typically find in the North.
You’ll search in vain for the northern Indian fare that’s familiar to most Americans. Instead, you’ll find dishes like avial (vegetables in coconut sauce) and dhahi vada (fried lentil “donuts” dipped in yogurt), and entire categories devoted to dosa (rice flour crêpes) and uthappam (savory lentil and rice flour pancakes). Even if you’re a fan of the cuisine, chances are you’ll discover a few items on Sai Krishna Bhavan’s menu you haven’t come across before.
Don’t let any of that stop you from embarking on a rewarding gastronomic adventure that could well have you returning again and again for further exploration. If the menu’s accurate but brief descriptions aren’t a sufficient map to chart your course, rest assured that owner Rajendra Yarlagadda is a most able and affable tour guide.
Born in Andhra Pradesh, Yarlagadda has worked in several southern Indian restaurants on the East Coast, most recently for 10 years at Udupi Café in Cary. He set out on his own to open Sai Krishna Bhavan in November. Yarlagadda will cheerfully help you tailor your order to your palate and your sense of adventure.
He might steer you toward the assorted appetizer, platter, which – except for the fiery chile pakora – offers a gentle introduction to the cuisine. The platter even includes a large vegetable pakora that should make any devotee of northern Indian cuisine feel right at home. You also get a lightly breaded “cutlet” of minced vegetables; a batter-fried lentil dumpling called bonda, with mildly spiced filling of mashed potatoes and peas; and a vada. Served with sambar, the spicy lentil soup that accompanies many dishes, and a trio of chutneys (including the coconut chutney that’s a hallmark of the cuisine), it’s ample for three or four to share.
An Indian take on the spring roll, whose mixed vegetable filling is punctuated with onion, is another way to ease your way into the meal.
Follow that with uthappam – the one with coconut baked into the top of the cake until the shreds turn a nice toasty brown. If you’re feeling bolder, uthappam with diced onion and hot chiles ought to hit the spot. Either way, be sure to dip pieces into the coconut chutney that’s served alongside – or the ginger chutney that’s obligingly provided if you ask.
The dosa dish
You’ll also want to try at least one of the 15 variations on dosa, the signature dish of southern India. Always an impressive sight, the crêpe is so large that, even when one is folded around a filling, its edges hang several inches off the rim of the plate. The dosa is very thin, though, and the filling little more than a bulge in the middle. A couple of people shouldn’t have trouble polishing off at least one.
But which filling? Mysore masala dosa, with mashed potato and onion on a whisper-thin smear of spicy chutney, is a classic. Deservedly so, but I’m partial to the butter dosa: no filling at all, just acres of buttery crêpe with a lacy, delicately crisp border.
In lieu of a filling, I’d happily round out my meal with kadai bhindi curry, a colorful medley of okra, diced red and green bell peppers and onion in a gently spiced curry showered with chopped cilantro. Maybe an order of gobi Manchurian, a fiery Indian-Chinese dish featuring crisp, chile-reddened nuggets (if you order it “dry” rather than “with gravy”) of cauliflower. Or the Hyderabadi deep-fried eggplant classic, guth vankay.
Sai Krishna Bhavan’s dining rooms are modestly but attractively furnished in an understated contemporary style whose muted shades of coral and ivory create a relaxed and quietly inviting mood. In the room on the left, a lunch buffet is offered every day but Monday.
The restaurant’s name translates to something like “house of Krishna,” according to its owner. That’s a bold name for a first restaurant, in essence proclaiming it a worthy dwelling for one of Hinduism’s greatest avatars. I’d say that’s not far off the mark.
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