June 29, 2010 was a momentous day in Parisian food history, or at least in my personal Parisian food history. It wasn't the day that a famous French restaurant got its third Michelin star or the day that a new fromage was created. No, much more exciting than that! June 29, 2010 was the day that Saravana Bhavan, the legendary chain of Indian vegetarian restaurants, opened its first branch in Paris. What's so exciting about that, you may be wondering? Well...not only did the opening of SB (as I like to call it) herald the long-awaited arrival of good Indian food in Paris, but it also marked a new outpost of the 30-year old Chennai and indeed Indian institution...just two Metro stops away from me!
The first Saravana Bhavan was opened in 1981 by Mr. P. Rajagopal (known as "Annachi") in the KK Nagar neighborhood of Chennai. Formerly known as Madras, Chennai is the fourth-largest city in India and also where I was born. I can fondly remember many an outing to SB during childhood trips back to India. It was synonymous with quality, fresh vegetarian food, passing even the rigorous hygiene standards of my doctor uncle.
But beyond this, SB has always epitomized the food culture of India for me. Always packed, bustling and noisy, it was the place where newly married couples went on dates, where entire families went for their Saturday outings, where we ordered catering for parties and social occasions. Closing my eyes, I can see the images of waiters toting steaming plates of masala dosa and uttapam, smell the aroma of sambar and South Indian filter coffee, hear the ruckus of animated conversations in Tamil. In other words, SB evokes home for me like few other places do!
To date, the chain has 25 restaurants in South India, 2 in North India and 30 across 10 countries outside of India (including the U.S., Canada, the UK, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman, Malaysia and Singapore). I suppose that it was only a matter of time before SB came to France, a country in which the majority of the South Asian population is Tamil in origin (from the former French comptoirs of Pondicherry and Karaikal and the Tamil community of Sri Lanka). But still...I was surprised and delighted when the doors of the Paris branch opened at 170 Rue du Faubourg-Saint-Denis in the 10th arrondissement (right at the exit of Gare du Nord metro).
Unlike many restaurants in this area which is commonly known as Little India or Little Sri Lanka, SB is big and well-lit. It's a good thing too, because word has clearly gotten out now that it's been around for 8 months. Initially frequented mostly by South Asians, Parisians (and tourists!) of all stripes are now flocking to SB, be they vegetarians, Indian food novices or true aficionados lured by the promise of good, fresh, authentic Indian food in Paris...at last! As a result, SB is now packed almost every night.
In true SB form, the menu is vast and features an extensive selection of South Indian, North Indian and Indo-Chinese dishes. I love all of these cuisines naturally and what I order at SB will usually depend on the mood that I'm in. I'm particularly appreciative of the Indo-Chinese selection since this is the only spot in Paris (as far as I know) that serves these dishes...and they do them just the way I like! The prices at SB are higher than those of other restaurants in this neighborhood, but the quality makes it well worth it in my opinion. You can eat in or take away, as Luis and I do from time to time.
The drink selection includes typical favorites such sweet and salty lassis as well as fruit lassis (mango seems to be the only choice which is ever available though!). There is also Kingfisher, the refreshing Indian beer, as well as a surprising selection of Indian wines such as Sula and Grover. The wine industry in India, in case you didn't know, is small but very much up and coming.
The selection of appetizers and snacks at SB is vast. There are many South Indian favorites such as bondas (potato fritters) and vada (rice and lentil "donuts") served in sambar (lentil and vegetable stew), rasam (clear tomato broth) or thayir (yogurt). Another SB favorite, which I tried for the first time the other day, is kaima idli. Idlis are the famed steamed rice and lentil cakes eaten as a breakfast item throughout South India. The innovative SB version consists of chopped, fried idlis (nobody said it's good for you!) sauteed in a sauce of tomato, chillies, coriander and "regional spices" as written on the menu. There are also a number of Indo-Chinese appetizers/snacks, including spring rolls, cauliflower (gobi) 65 and chili paneer.
|Vegetable spring rolls|
I often find that sharing a couple of appetizers is more than enough at SB...the portions are quite generous! However the main courses are tempting as well. Tops on my list are the various dosas. The dosa is a classic South Indian dish, basically a huge, paper-thin "crepe" made of rice flour and lentils and often stuffed with potatoes, paneer and other selected fillings. I also like some of the North Indian dishes such as the classic aloo mattar (curry of potato and green peas). If you're having a tough time choosing what to order, SB also offers both North Indian and South Indian thalis, featuring samplings of several dishes served on a large plate along with rice, chapati, a little dessert, the whole works! The first photo in this post is the North Indian thali (though I'm partial to the South Indian one myself...not that I'm biased or anything!). All of the Indo-Chinese dishes, such as hakka noodles, gobi (cauliflower) manchurian and mushroom fried rice are delicious as well.
|Paper masala dosa|
SB also features many classic Indian desserts and sweets such as badam kheer (an almond drink) and carrot halwa. I never have room for dessert though, and if I'm going to have anything to end a meal at SB I opt for some steaming, South Indian-style filter coffee. Just like in India, it is served with a tumbler and saucer so that you can pour it back and forth until it has cooled down just enough for you to be able to drink it.
The service at the Paris SB, though courteous and personable, can be erratic. Even though the restaurant has been around for 8 months now, there is inevitably a bit of confusion every time - a lengthy wait at times, an order mixed up here and there, starters and mains arriving at the same time on occasion. I take it with a grain of salt, grateful as I am to have an SB here and to be able to chat in Tamil with the waiters. The occasional chaos is a happy chaos, one that reminds me of India. This combined with the delectable food that tastes like home keeps me coming back to SB again and again. If you give it a try, you may find yourself in a similar predicament!
170, Rue du Faubourg-Saint-Denis
Tel: +33 (0)1 40 05 01 01
Open daily, 10:30am-11:00pm