The Taj Mahal is delicious eye candy, architecturally speaking. Bollywood dance numbers are toe-tapping visual feasts. But Indian cuisine, as expressed in Western New York restaurants, isn’t much to look at. The dosa changes all that. It’s a pizza-sized, crispy-edged crepe, rolled into a bazooka-caliber tube that hides a payload of spiced potato. It demands action as you tear and dunk morsels into the proffered bevy of dipping sauces, including cool coconut chutney. At Chennai Express, the new downtown Indian restaurant, there are 35 dosas on the menu, each one with the power to transform how you see Indian cuisine. Encounter one, and you may find yourself making thinly veiled excuses to get a dosa Indian food. ¶ Chennai Express isn’t much to look at either. It was opened by a Sri Lankan named Raj Velautham on Thanksgiving Day in a space that was once a gay bar called Bulldog Lil’s.
The disco ball is gone, but the bar remains, stoking a thirst that you cannot satisfy, as no alcohol is available. You’ll have to make do with drinks like cardamom-ginger-cinnamon spiced milky tea ($1.95) and mango lassis ($2.95), sweet yogurt shakes that could use more mango.
When the dosas start arriving, you won’t miss the booze.
But first, a survey of other notable dishes we tried. Papri chaat ($5.95), a mixture of chickpeas, fried chickpea noodles, potatoes, yogurt sauce, coriander chutney and sweet-and-sour tamarind sauce, was an engaging mix of textures and flavors, a vegetarian “garbage plate.” Chili paneer dry ($4.45) was cheese cubes sautéed with chunks of onion, bell pepper and tangy chile sauce. Shrimp biryani ($13.95), fluffy, aromatic rice pilaf tossed with salad shrimp, red onion and lemon slices, was praisefully light.
Palak paneer ($9.95), cheese and spinach, avoided the overcreamed fate of many versions, retaining its green character. Paneer makhni ($9.95), cheese cubes in a tomato-spiced cream sauce, satisfied as well.
Curries include fish masala ($13.95), skin-on fish steaks in sauce, and lamb vindaloo ($11.95), which was requested spicy, and arrived tangy with vinegar but barely tingly. If you want them to bring the heat, apparently convincing is required. Our server did deliver an assortment of hot sauces, including a brick-red paste called “gunpowder.” Its toasted, nutty chile flavor is an intriguing flavor booster, and just after you say, “It’s not that hot,” the temperature starts rising. This stuff is as dangerous as its namesake, but so tasty it makes you want to flirt with fire.
But the dosas stole the show.
Our first was the Chennai Express dosa ($9.95). It was ruddy with chile powder, bubbly and shiny from the cheese cooked into it. It tasted like browned cheese bits you scrape out of the skillet after you make toasted cheese sandwiches, except this crepe was literally the size of a manhole cover, folded into a rectangle a foot long, with chopped red onion inside. Like other dosas, it came with two kinds of coconut chutney, one mild and sweet, the other with a lick of smoky heat, plus a little bowl of sambar, lentil vegetable soup.
The cheese Pondicherry dosa ($8.50) also was flavored with cheese and chile, but rolled around a filling of spiced mashed potato and chopped into four pieces.
The arrival of the paper masala dosa ($6.95) drew murmurs of surprise from the table for its zeppelinlike appearance, a tube of lacy, wafer-thin crepe a yard long and eight inches across. Hidden inside was a mound of mashed potatoes flavored with caramelized onion, cumin, cilantro and other spices, the standard filling for dosas.
Our server was helpful in explaining the differences between dosa classes, and could guide your search. Most of them are gluten-free and vegan unless it’s a cheese version, or you want it cooked with ghee, clarified butter, instead of the default fat, vegetable oil.
We tore and we dunked and we scooped, admiring the contrasts between chutneys, various hot sauces and the calming lentil broth of the sambar. We swapped platters.
The interactive nature of the dosa seemed to stimulate tableside conversation. Trish, a declared nonfan of Indian food, said Chennai Express and its dosa parade changed her mind.
Chennai Express offers Buffalo more than just its first dedicated dosa specialist. It’s also a new playground for gluten-free and vegan diners to explore. South Indian snacks like uthappam ($5.50), a lentil batter pancake, can be customized with tomatoes, chiles, onions or other add-ons.
It also offers free delivery in a 2-mile radius. But to experience true dosa joy, you must experience it in situ. A journey in steamy Styrofoam leaves them soft and faded.
For dessert, we tried thin, faintly cardamom-scented kheer rice pudding ($2.95). Spoons kept reaching for another taste of buttery carrot halwa ($2.95), sticky caramelized shredded carrot with peanuts, “like carrot cake without the cake,” Cat said. There was also galub jamun ($2.95), spongy fried cheese balls in syrup, and rasamalai ($3.50), cheese dumplings soaked in sweet rosewater-flavored milk.
Chennai Express is serving solid Indian food in an undistinguished room, but you won’t notice the lack of decor when one of its dosas hits the table. It fills a gap in Buffalo menus that I didn’t even know was there.
Chennai Express - 7
Humble place introduces dosas to city, makes new fans of Indian cuisine.
WHERE: 452 Pearl St. (768-4426, chennaiexpressbuffalo.com).
HOURS: 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
PRICE RANGE: Appetizers, $2.95-$6.95; dosas, $4.95-$9.95; entrees, $6.95-$13.95.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes.