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From front: Shrimp Biryani served with raita and curry sauce; ras Malai dessert; and the potato and pea masala dosa. (Photos by Mark Greenberg)

Austin's Sarovar left part of the menu behind when it came to town, but all of the flavor is here

I love this place. Not for its "placeness," mind you; even judged by middle-of-the-road American restaurant standards it's bland, and given the delicious potential for Indian excess, Sarovar seems all the more modest in the decor department. But, oh, the food. On my first visit, inopportunely accompanied by six of my most avaricious (in a food sense only, of course) friends, the event turned into a feeding frenzy of epic proportions. Elbows flew, a pot of coconut chutney bit the dust; certain dishes, the ones most jealously guarded by those closest to them, never even made it to my end of the table, I swear. Yet we all left happy. And stuffed.

Sarovar, emphasis on the "o," I'm told, is the sibling of a restaurant by the same name in Austin where, we learned from one of two very good waiters, the menu is a full page longer than the one here. The mind boggles. For even on ours, the diner with local experience in Indian cuisine will find much that is new and intriguing, starting with the Southern Indian dishes that give Sarovar its special cast. Two suggestions: Ask for your food no more than medium spicy (you can always upgrade later), and if you ask your waiter for advice (and you should), take it.

Also take advantage of the fact that Southern India has many vegetarian specialties by ordering the lacy-light spinach pakoras in a crisp, chickpea batter crust and the contrastingly hearty vegetable samosas. The latter are as large as a fist and stuffed with potato and peas flavored with a heavenly host of aromatic spices. Both are good alone, but paired with one of the two chutneys you should have at this point, the brilliantly green and scintillating cilantro and the brooding, sweet-sour tamarind, they are sublime.

   Sarovar Indian Cuisine

10227 Ironside

11am-2:30pm Mon-Fri,
11am-3pm Sat-Sun;

5-10pm Sun-Thu,
5-11pm Fri-Sat

Major credit cards
Handicapped accessible

Listed under South Specialties, you will next find the dosas, those ravishingly thin pancakes made of either a rice and lentil or rice and wheat batter left to sour just a bit before cooking. The Mysore masala dosa is made of green lentils and comes to the table accordingly colored and fairly hanging over the edges of the plate. The wheat-based rava dosas are slightly lacier in appearance (not unlike the Ethiopian injera, but less spongy in texture), and should you order the potato and pea-filled masala version, you'll find the filling much like that of the vegetable samosas. Cumin and black mustard seed are apparent, and there's also the nutty crunch of what appears to be sautéed dal or dried legumes (usually, but not always, lentil). With the dosas you should also be served two more chutneys, a ravishing, red tomato with hints of ginger, dried chiles and dozens of other spices, and the mellow coconut. Use them liberally.

Chicken 65 (The story varies: Either there are 65 spices in the dish or the chicken lived 65 very good days) with its fragrant curry leaves (not, as one might think, the main ingredient in curry powder) and crusty ginger fish were both standouts on the night of the food fight. Only by comparison to more exotic offerings did a dish such as the chickpea curry suffer, so we ordered it again on round two, this time (from the North Specialties section) with the golden chole poori, a puffy and plate-sized bread served with the curry on the side. Together, the fried bread (just rip it apart) and comforting curry are at once humble and exalting.

Sarovar chef and partner, Venkat Vemireddy removes a skewer of Tandoori chicken from the restaurant's tandoor oven.
Lamb biryani was also a standout the first night, leading to the ordering of shrimp biryani on visit two. There are five such, usually elaborate, rice dishes on the menu (Sarovar's version is actually tame compared to many banquet varieties), and any one of them is bound to be great; the rice itself is wildly fragrant with spices such as black cardamom, and has a nutty-chewy texture from the generous amount of ghee (clarified butter) with which it is baked. The add-ins, though not exactly incidental (the shrimp had a tandoori-like quality and were the least interesting part of the dish), are second fiddle - especially after the accompanying thick-and-savory curry sauce (a kind of gravy) is employed. Though lamb koorma, in a cream sauce with ground nuts, was recommended by our informative waiter, we had also enjoyed the chicken incarnation during the previously cited pig-out, so we took suggestion two, the kadai lamb. Coarsely ground and sautéed until nearly dry in a spicy curry with peas and cashews, this is lamb as you've likely never had it. At the medium heat level, just enough lamb comes through to be identifiable; the spice symphony takes over from there.

Lamb gets an entire menu section at Sarovar (Hindi for river, by the way), as do chicken, seafood, vegetables (the baigan bartha, or eggplant curry, is especially good) and tandoori-cooked specialties. We'll be back to try these and the Indian breads we never got around to.

We did go out on a sweet note, however, with the ras malai. I'm not sure how they do this at Sarovar, but typically the base of the dish is the Indian cottage cheese, channa, further fiddled with and cooked in a sugar syrup, after which it's served in reduced milk thickened with ground almond and scented with cardamom and rosewater. The spongy texture of the cheese was unique, and the rosewater flavor certainly apparent; as for the rest, let it remain inscrutable along with many of the spice combinations. That will only keep us returning until San Antonio is accorded Austin's extra page.

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