Saravana Bhavan Tops Table in Delhi Gourmet Club’s ‘Dosa Dance’ Led by Facebook Phenom Atul Sikand
WITH THE migrant population from the south finding employment in growing numbers at government institutions, a band of enterprising Udipi dosawallahs moved to Delhi to make their fortunes by serving them from the back of bicycle-drawn carts. They served the office-going crowds, took over canteens at such
bastions of the Capital’s southern population as the Press Trust of India, which for years has been jocularly called the Palghat Trust of India, and got migrant Punjabis addicted to the lightly spicy potato-packed crepe that everyone knows as the masala dosa.
This is one vegetarian preparation (along with the accompanying sambhar and chutneys) whose mass appeal cuts across linguistic and economic barriers. The masala dosa is ubiquitous, and has held its ground even after the onslaught of fast food and Barbeque Nation, in the Republic of Butter Chicken. What the southern superstar Rajnikanth couldn’t do, the humble masala dosa has achieved–it has invaded Delhi. The credit for making the dosa a sought-after speciality must go to a runaway boy from Udipi who started his life as a dishwasher in a canteen before going on to establish the Sagar-Swagath restaurant empire. The hero of this rags-to-riches story is Jayaram Banan. He was the one who made the Punjabi gentry of Defence Colony discover dosas in the days when he used to make them himself on his bicycle cart at a tree-shaded spot right opposite the location of the original Sagar Ratna, which Banan opened in the neighbourhood market in 1986.
As his business empire grew (the majority stake of the chain, valued at Rs 200 crore, was picked up by the New York-based portfolio management firm, Indian Equity Partners, in 2011), the quality of his dosas became uneven. I blame it on rapid expansion and indifferent franchisees, and now the media is agog with reports of differences erupting between Banan, who’s still chairman of Sagar Ratna Restaurants, and Indian Equity Partners.
With so much happening in the world of dosas, it was to be expected of the Delhi Gourmet Club (DGC) to set off on a ‘Dosa Dance’ across the city to zero in on the best. The jury consisted of well-travelled DGC members from different walks of life–a travel industry professional, for instance, who used to run a cooking school in France, an international lawyer, a senior Times of India executive, an editor with Bloomberg, and a management consultant with strong views on the provenance and authenticity of dosas.
The leader of the jury was Atul Sikand, who has become a Facebook phenomenon–his global recipe-sharing page, Sikandalous Cuisine, now has 10,000 (and counting) followers. With a leader like Sikand, it was to be expected of the jury to be tough with its assessments.
Sure enough, none of the 10 restaurants shortlisted for the Dosa Dance scored above 39.33/50. I wish, though, that they had more on the list, such as the United News of India canteen behind the Planning Commission building; Kausstubh at DLF Place, Saket; Southy on Aurobindo Marg (near Adhchini); and the mithai shops Anupam Sweets (Greater Kailash, Part II) and Evergreen (Green Park). It would have given us an idea of the variety available across the Capital. Also missing were restaurants from Karol Bagh and Mayur Vihar, which have major concentrations of migrant populations from the south.
The jury clearly wasn’t impressed by the credentials of the shortlisted restaurants. Upsets naturally were to be expected.
Sagar Ratna, the original and not some franchisee outlet, finished a lowly seventh in a field where a minuscule 0.33 points separated the winner (Saravana Bhavan, Janpath) and the first runner-up (Tamil Nadu Bhavan, Chanakyapuri, which was clearly the surprise of the pack). Carnatic Cafe, which is at the back of the New Friends Colony Market, came third, although everyone just loves it (and it is Rahul Gandhi’s favourite haunt, when he’s not visiting Smoke House Deli, Khan Market). Saravana got top billing because of both the consistency of its offerings and the care that went into the accompaniments (sambhar and chutneys).
It is followed by another long-time favourite, Delhi Karnataka Sangha on Rao Tula Ram Marg, which beat Chidambaram, Khanna Market, Lodi Colony, an icon for Delhi’s Tamilian population, by just 0.63 points. Chidambaram apparently lost out because of its unsatisfactory paper dosa!
The top five were followed by five established names in the business: Sri Gururaj Udipi at Munirka; Sagar Ratna at Defence Colony; Naivedyam at Hauz Khas Village; Bhaja Govindam, next to Delite cinema, on Asaf Ali Road; and Ananda Bhawan at the Main Market, Green Park. Their lowly rankings made me wonder whether they had become victims of the complacence that their early success brought upon them. Or have the got trapped in a time bubble and are unable to do anything about the writing that is loud and clear on the wall?
The jury, which covered two outlets in a week without letting the restaurants know what they were up to, tasted three dosas–masala, paper and rawa onion–per establishment. In each case, they asked for the masala dosa filling to be served separately so that they could taste it as it is. Each dosa was judged by its crust (crisp outside, soft within), fillings, accompaniments (sambhar, gunpowder and chutneys) and, most important, overall taste. The points given by each judge present were added up and the weighted average became the score that the restaurant got. Apparently, as you’d expect from a qualified jury, the variations in scores were minimal.
With their effort, the ‘Dosa Dance’ jury has given foodies in Delhi and visitors to the city a list to refer to when they are overcome by dosa cravings, which is not an uncommon happening. The Delhi Gourmet Club now has four such well-researched lists–butter chicken, classic hamburger, seekh kebabs and dosa–to offer to foodies who wish to discover the city’s best-kept secrets. Another one–this time on pizzas–is being released soon. Watch out for my report on it.