No. 21 Saravana Palace
Confronted with the variety of textures, colors, and smells at this delicious vegetarian Indian restaurant, nonvegetarians will be tempted to wonder: What if meatless cooking were always this interesting?
Take Saravana’s paneer masala, a variation of Butter Chicken. The gravy clinging to the cubes of house-made cheese is so full of tomatoey tang, so lush and warming that you don’t miss the chicken. Or the channa batura, in which pieces are torn off piping-hot fry bread to scoop up a rusticky chickpea mixture that has the complexity of a great curry—and tastes good even after the bread has cooled.
The menu at this Fairfax strip-mall gem offers more than 160 meatless dishes, with nary a clunker and no dish costing more than $14. There are expertly tended dosa—crispy rice crepes folded into giant, golden-brown half moons and stuffed with potatoes or vegetables; the area’s best rendition of idli, those steamed, fermented rice cakes eaten at the start of a meal; stirring renditions of street food (especially the poori bhaji); and many examples of the fryer’s craft, from crunchy gram-flour patties called masala vada studded with chilies to a dish called medhu valla —lightly spiced lentil-batter doughnuts.
In eating vegetarian Indian cooking, there’s really no main course. You can fill up quite nicely without a curry. Maybe the best dish here is a plate of perfectly fluffy rice tossed with thick curls of fresh coconut, toasted mustard seeds, curry leaves, red chilies, and peanuts, the whole thing so aromatic and smoky you find yourself trying to suss out its secrets.