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.
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.
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. •