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 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 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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