Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Dosa - Valencia Street - Mission District - San Francisco

A Hip Approach to South Indian Cuisine
Dosa Valencia Mission District San Francisco Restaurant Review

This post has been fashioned from my latest article for SFist in which I eat my way around the Bay Area in alphabetical order. I decided to cheat a little for the letter S. Instead of choosing a restaurant name, I settled on an entire cuisine - from the South of India. By the end of the meal, at hot new spot in town, Dosa, I realised that the initial of the day just as aptly described Secret which is the explanation Dosa give for many of their style of South Indian recipes...

I detected a wave of excitement fluttering through San Francisco when news broke that the Mission District was going to be home to a new Indian called Dosa, devoted to cuisine from the South of the country. S is for Scarce, which describes the presence of this cooking style in the city until now. The Chronicle's Amanda Berne visited Dosa just a few days after it had opened, reported it in the What's New section and from that moment onwards its success seemed assured. Even people who don't normally seem to be that interested in dining out were asking me if I'd heard of this much talked-about new place. Barely a week old, Dosa was already buzzing.

I arrived, realising that as no reservations can be made for parties of less than six, that we would probably be in for a wait for a table. When I saw other people waiting outside we were almost deterred from sticking it out in the less than clement weather, but after Fred had a quick word with the very charming French-speaking hostess, he learnt we were welcome to wait inside at the bar.

The room, with its spicy orange walls is warm, cosy and welcoming although the lofty ceiling means that noise is not dampened and the space is too loud for comfortable conversation. Eventually we cottoned on that sitting at the bar to eat would not only secure us a spot of our own more quickly, it actually seemed more inviting than the tables, some of which were stationed in less than attractive areas that served more as walkways than places to enjoy a meal.

Spotty service can be forgiven during the first few weeks of a restaurant's opening. Things were a bit hectic on our visit to Dosa but if you are patient and prepared for sitting it out, start with one of their remarkable Lychee Lush Soju cocktails made to that S is for Secret recipe from the fruits seeping in a huge glass jar of alcohol behind the bar. It's difficult to drink this mouthwatering Lychee concoction slowly so when you need further refreshment, slow down, perhaps, with a huge glass of sparkling Prosecco that will provide a crisp refreshing contrast to the spicy food that follows. The rest of the wine list, chosen by Michael Minna's sommelier, Mark Bright, is short but attractive and of a quality beyond the kind of wine list you would usually find at an Indian restaurant in San Francisco. (A bottle of beer in a brown paper bag is more the norm.)

I could already see, from servers passing by, that the entrees were huge, but we were itching for an appetizer, anyway. I asked for a Dahi Vada - a South Indian snack food, consisting of a lentil dumpling served in a yoghurt sauce. I not only chose it because it is a dish I usually like, but also because it didn't incorporate any of the chutneys or sambar that I could clearly see were repeated in the entree section of the menu.

Unfortunately we ended up being served a different appetizer by mistake, a deep fried, crispy lentil dumpling instead, complete with the doubling up of chutneys and sauces I was trying to avoid. In their favour - the Dosa Staff offered to change it for us but we declined because we were hungry after all the waiting. Certainly do be aware, when eating at Dosa, that the sides for the appetizers and mains might be the same. Read the menu carefully and balance your choices accordingly for a more variety-filled meal.

For our mains we ordered a masala dosa and a a plate of mixed uttapam to share. The enormous dosa, filled with a simple blend of spiced potatoes and cashew nuts, tasted good. The accompanying chutneys, including the coconut one that I thought was disappointingly flavourless compared to those I have tried in other South Indian eateries, began to seem a little tired, especially since they had been with us since our first course. The sambar - a soupish lentil gravy traditionally served with the dosa, idly and vada items, for dipping, was much thicker than I've encountered before and was without the same unique flavour we were expecting.

Uttapam is a dish I am only familiar with from our trips to Kennedy's, but my British genes were reminded of pikelets (a kind of flat crumpet) by Dosa's version. Fred and I liked the idea of the sampler plate - a selection of several mini uttapam, each with a different topping, but were less enamoured by its execution: The caramelized onion one had the most flavour, the fresh tomato was bland, likely because of the unavailability of good fruit during the winter season and the mutter, or peas, was the most disappointing (the peas were almost as hard as bullets).

The one dish that totally bowled me over was the side of Channa Masala - chickpeas. Heck, I don't even care for chick peas and I just couldn't stop eating them. Authentic or not, I didn't care, I finished the whole bowl, licking it clean. They were surprisingly and totally irresistable. Definitely check them out, whatever else you order, if you end up dining at Dosa.

The staff were really genial and we even had a chat with one of the owners, Anjan Mitra, from Bombay, whom I told that many of the dishes didn't taste quite as I expected them to, from my previous experiences of South Indian food (admittedly mainly from London, not India). Again, he explained that he was using a lot of his mothers Secret recipes. The peculiar sambar was a Secret" as was the delicious chickpea dish created by his chef. "It's slightly sweet", he said, "that's part of the Secret".

Another conversation with our bartender and server, who mellowed out and became much less stressed as the clientele thinned out, had him asking our opinion. I thought about it for a minute and conlcuded that, much as I dislike the word, it is a "trendy" version of South Indian Food. Dosa is a lively place, it's a fun place, it's great for vegetarians, it's reasonably priced, it's good for groups and it's very friendly. To many people, Dosa offers a new style of eating and a new taste experience, which should be enough positive vibe to keep the novice customers happy for a while and the tables busy. But unless Dosa incorporate some more authentic flavours where they are expected and add a bit more variety into their menu, my guess is that true fans of South Indian food won't be in any great hurry to return after they have given it the once over.

And as for Fred - what did he think? He hated it and refuses to go there ever again. "When can we go to the Tenderloin", he asked, tugging at my sleeve, so I can have my chicken tikka masala???

Update January 2006:
A Response to this review from the owner of Dosa, Anjan Mitra can be read here.

This review was a . Read more opinions on: Love in The Time of Coriander | Citysearch | Yelp | In the Crowd | Bay Area Bites.
You can also get Dosa and Uttapam at Kennedy's in North beach. Read a previous Review here.

Dosa | 995 Valencia St | San Francisco | CA 94110 | (415) 642-3672

PS. There is a great new food challenge for this coming weekend, from the lovely Kate Hill, that will appeal to the pig, porc and charcuteries lovers out there. I am so excited about it! Check it out the details here: Slow Pig Blogging Weekend.

PPS. An Eating Local breakfast for yesterday and today: St Benoit Yoghurt topped with a spoonful of June Taylor's ethereal Apricot Almond Fruit Butter.

Archive Alert! On this date in 2005 Hot Chocolate - Hot Topic.

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Dosa - Valencia Street - Mission District - San Francisco


  • At 10/1/06 08:54, Blogger Kyla said…

    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  • At 10/1/06 08:54, Blogger Kyla said…

    Love your blog - am going to try the ricotta later this week. Is there a way to make it a dish to go with a tea I'm having I wonder. What about dried cherries and honey on top, or crushed walnuts, honey and mint?

    I've tried and tried to like Southern Indian food and I do except for the dosas - I feel toward them as I do toward injera. Just can't. My only weakness as an omnivore I guess: (very) fermented bread.

    Look forward to reading much more from you. A la prochaine.

  • At 10/1/06 09:03, Blogger NS said…

    I went to Dosa a few weeks ago and similarly thought that it offered a mixed bag. The Lamb Curry and the Bhatura with Chana Masala were truly fantastic, but the Uttapam and the Paper Masala Dosa were actually very disappointing. The uttapam were virtually devoid of flavor, and the dosa was much too thick and way too chewy. Still, the great dishes were probably enough to convince me to return to give the restaurant another chance. But I agree with you - Dosa needs to step things up a bit in order to develop a true following.

  • At 10/1/06 09:36, Blogger Owen said…

    Hmmm - I think I'll give it a miss. Seems to conform to a lot of my Indian experiences over here which are that it doesn't quite measure up to what I have come to expect from the UK. We still eat out Indian with friends and when the family is hungry and near a Naan and curry because it is so very cheap (my lovely wife discovered that you can get a kebab, rice and all the chai tea you want for $3!) but I'm never quite happy.

    It's a shame because I love a really good papery thin sour dosa filled with hot and spicy stuff.

  • At 10/1/06 21:21, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    The best South Indian I have had is Saravana Bhavan in (?) Sunnyvale I think. It's fabulous. Otherwise it's dosas at Vik's. The buzz I have heard on Dosa is that it looks great and is stylish fun, but the food is not so hot - especially if you know/like south indian cuisine.

    But that chana masala sounds yummy!

  • At 11/1/06 07:15, Blogger Sam said…

    Dafina Girl:
    Thank you - I am happy you were inspired by the Ricotta recipe. I am of the opinion that the ricotta needs something salty to balance. Therefore, if I was to eat it with tea, I think I might make dainty little cucumber sandwiches with ricotta and plenty of salt and pepper. What do you think of that idea? I see you are shutting down your blog - why don't you start a food blog instead? Would love to see the results of your ricotta making.

    Thank you for commenting, it seems my thoughts about Dosa fit in quite well with other peoples' opinions, and it is nice to know when that happens. My Dosa was actually good in itself, not chewy. Fred met a French friend at the tie in the restaurant who also said the lamb curry was excellent, so that sounds like a dish to try on another visit.

    Yes, I believe it wouln't be your cup of tea, Owen! Don't they always put milk in the tea? Call me Un-English but I have to have my tea black!

    Although we are lazy as anything, must try and get to the SOuth Bay sometime and try that. In the meantime have never even been to Pakwan, so that's another "to do" as well!

    Diane - thank you - I really should be prepared to do a bit more travelling for my Indian food, as Brett and you so rightly point out. Sam

  • At 16/1/06 02:31, Blogger Anjan Mitra said…

    Hi folks – This is Anjan, my wife and I own Dosa. I’ve already sent an email to Sam about the posting. I appreciated the candor and criticism and asked Sam & Fred to visit us again because we did make some mistakes (with our food and service) in our first few days, which we have since corrected. (Btw, she & Fred very graciously accepted). For instance, while our chef and sous chef are both South Indian we had a new prep cook who was not. After our sous chef blended the chutneys, our prep cook was sometimes forgetting an important step of tempering the chutneys with salt, mustard seeds and red chilis that are sautéed and added to the coconut chutney right before they are served. As a result, the chutneys did not taste they way they were supposed. (Brett, this might have accounted for your South Indian friend’s experience).

    While I can’t ask anyone to like our food…if they don’t…I did want to clarify a few things about South Indian food and our restaurant (and also request that people not based their opinion on hearsay).

    Our chef is originally (born and raised) from Trichy which is near Chennai (formerly Madras) and our sous chef is from Coimbatore (also born and raised). Both cities are in Tamil Nadu, which is one of the states of Southern India.

    While it really is no secret that I am Bengali and enthusiastically devour fish curries (I have an amazing Bengali curry recipe of green chilis and mustard seeds), I grew up eating South Indian food since I was a kid and know the food intimately. There are literally hundreds of South India restaurants in Bombay, with South Indians cooks in the kitchen. For instance, there were about four South Indian restaurants within a two block radius of my house. (This shouldn’t be surprising, considering the population of Bombay is around 18 million). So while I wouldn’t dare consider myself a South Indian chef, I definitely know the food and our chef and sous chef are about as authentic as they get!

    Having said that, it is difficult to describe a “typical” South Indian style in a region that has approximately $400 million people!!! Imagine the diversity in a population two and half times the size of the U.S. that speaks at least 8 different languages, 100’s of dialect and that practices over 3 major religions – Hinduism, Islam and Christianity. A simple example…one of our chutneys, which is tomato-based (and very popular), is our chef’s mom’s recipe and something I had never tasted before. However, I’d be hard-pressed to say it was not South Indian considering my chef grew up eating it at home in Tamil Nadu. Similarly, the cashews in the potato masala are our chef’s own recipe from home and while all South Indians might not do the same I certainly wouldn’t question its authenticity…much like I would not question other variations of the same dish. And yes, there are many variations of the dosa from ones we serve including non-vegetarian versions eaten by the Muslim community in Hyderabad.

    A few facts about the food…dosas are made from rice and urad dal (a lentil) and injera from Ethiopia & Eritrea is made from teff flour. It is easy to compare the two but they are different. Dosa and Uttapams should always be eaten with the sambar and at least one of the chutneys! (It’s a bit like tasting a pancake without the syrup or a hamburger bun without the patty). They’re meant to eaten together and spiced accordingly. Our chefs and I prefer our dosas just slightly crispy with a little pliability to scoop up the potato masala, dip it in the sambar and add a little chutney. (Btw, I always recommend that people eat dosas with their fingers). The Mysore and Chatni Masala are little softer (and a bit spicier) because they have a sauce spread on the inside of the dosa. If you want a crispy dosa get the paper dosa. It’s big and dramatic and we serve with the masala on the side.

    (Incidentally, none of this is news to Indians who have grown up in India, who also tend to be our most frequent repeat customers).

    Needless to say before we opened Dosa I visited every single South Indian restaurant in the Bay Area that serves dosas. And no, neither Dasaprakash nor Sarvana Bhavan was my favorite, though some of my Indian friends do like them. (I was very annoyed when I saw Mexican cooks making the dosas at Sarvana Bhavan). In my opinion, Vik’s dosa is mediocre (their sambar is a North Indian hybrid) and Pasand’s version is downright awful.

    As for the wine list (thanks for your kind words Sam), it is certainly not something you would find in South Indian restaurants, which is exactly why we have it. While we wanted our food to be authentic, we also wanted our restaurant to have its own distinct identity from other fluorescent-lit-Denny’s-converted South Indian restaurants in the south bay. After all we are also San Francisco foodies who love our wine!

    Sam, Fred, Brett et al …now that things are running a lot smoother at our restaurant I sincerely encourage you drive down to the South Bay and compare their dosas with ours. I feel confident that our dosas will stand up to the best of them. Also, if you’d really like to experience the food, please don’t judge the food based on take-out.

    While I don’t expect Indians from the South Bay to visit SF for dosas there are certainly many, many Indians who visit us a few times a week who will never again make the trip down to the South Bay for the same reason. We’ve also had glowing endorsements from South Indians who’ve insisted on shooting-the-shit in Tamil with our Chef. (Something we tend to discourage when it’s very busy).

    If you give us another shot (or the first one if you haven’t been in) at least now we will be able to put our best…spoon forward. (wasn’t expecting a laugh). If you still don’t like us….oh well! Again, it’s really not fair to base your opinion on hearsay.

    Finally, we are actively working on reducing the noise levels and it will probably take us a few weeks. The restaurant is lot busier than we expected and the noise levels caught us off-guard. (The empty restaurant was a lot quieter! :-) ) Needless to say I love the foodie blogs though I’m hoping I can change Sam & Fred’s mind on their second visit.

    PS – Before there is major online expose…it’s also no secret that my wife grew up in Syracuse in a family of Russian Jews! Her father owns a couple of very successful restaurants in South Florida...and she had never tasted a dosa before she met me nine years ago. Gasp! :-)

  • At 16/1/06 07:15, Blogger Sam said…


    thank you for the update.
    I was planning on posting you email tomorrow. I think I will still go ahead and do that with reference to this very datailed comment.

    thank you for taking the time to appreciate the opinions of bloggers.


  • At 17/1/06 10:26, Blogger Barbara Fisher said…

    Anjan--if you come back and read this--your responses have convinced me that when we come out to the Bay Area this summer (we live in Ohio, but visit California as often as we can), that I must come to your restaurant for dinner one night.

    Your candor, appreciativeness and wealth of information has convinced me that I need to patronize your restaurant, even if it can only be for one night.

    Thank you.

  • At 18/1/06 00:59, Blogger Anjan Mitra said…

    Hi Barbara (et al) – Thank you so much for your consideration and we hope you enjoy your experience when you get a chance to visit us. We pay very close attention to our customers - online and at the restaurant. Based on their feedback we've made several refinements to our menu, our service, the platings, reservations, etc...and will always keep doing so. I’ve been a San Francisco resident for over 15 years (my wife for over 12) and we’re trying very hard to create a dining experience that we would like to expect at comparable restaurants. Also, to keep it interesting for our frequent customers we're also working on a few new items for the menu (all South Indian, of course! :-)) and updating our wine list.

    Kind regards.


  • At 5/2/06 19:05, Blogger Madhu said…

    Can't wait to try this restaurant. I get dissapointed everytime a Restaurant calls itself South Indian and then ends up having Chicken Tikka Masala. As the owner said the variety of food even from the South is incredible and one can never claim authencity of where the dish originated.

    I'm a South-Indian who grew up in Delhi, Goa and went to culinary school and I sincerly hope I don't have to drive to South Bay for a decent Dosa anymore.

    Sam maybe I can be your secret reviewer? Now that the owner knows you!

  • At 13/2/06 02:08, Blogger Anjan Mitra said…

    Hi Madhu - You're very welcome to come visit us. If you're going to be the secret reviewer may I suggest you come visit us on the weekdays, which is when most food critics visit :-). It's been getting very busy on the weekends and I would hate to have you wait for too long for a table. We do, however, take reservations for parties of 5 or more.

    Kind regards,


  • At 6/12/06 20:01, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Dosa is very expensive, other restaurants in Sunnyvale charge $5-$7 for a similar items while it charges $10 & there is room for competition, it will benefit consumers.


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