with gallery: Suvai: Taste of India offers delicious samples of different regions
When I first lived in Ann Arbor, there was only one Indian restaurant, and it was the only game in town for freshly baked paratha bread or matar paneer with peas and cubes of fresh cheese. Now it seems like there are dozens of places to get your tandoor on. One home-style Indian restaurant worth trying is Suvai: Taste of India, which has been on State Street near Ann Arbor's University of Michigan campus for the past two years.
I've been to Suvai many times to meet friends for lunch because the location is convenient to campus and the food is good. It's comfortable and quiet, with mostly a university crowd. Like many of the Indian restaurants in town, Suvai serves a lunch buffet that is representative of the food it offers at dinnertime, and at a very reasonable price.
Buffets have a bad reputation and declasse image, but the one at Suvai is always fresh, hot and constantly refilled. The upside of buffet-style eating means you don't have to wait for someone to take your order, which is good for all the U people who have to rush back to a postprandial meeting. The food at Suvai is delicious, and I find the main downside of "all you can eat" is getting a bit too ambitious with all the interesting things to try — and ending up having to repent with a salad for an evening meal.
The lunch buffet always includes a wide selection of dishes like fresh naan, some kind of crisp fried vegetable fritter, palak paneer (spinach and cubes of mild fresh paneer cheese in a creamy sauce), rice and vegetable biryani, fried noodles, channa masala (chickpeas in a spicy sauce) and tandoori chicken. The lunch buffet also includes milky spiced chai tea, a small potato-filled dosa, many varieties of yogurt raitas and spicy sauces, and dessert — often something like kesari (sweet semolina cooked with pineapple).
217 S. State St., Ann Arbor
- Hours: Lunch Monday-Friday 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m.; Saturday/Sunday noon-3:30 p.m. Dinner Monday-Friday 5-10 p.m.; Saturday/Sunday 5-10:30 p.m.
- Plastic: Visa, Mastercard
- Liquor: None
- Prices: Lunch buffet: M-F $9.50. Sat/Sun $11.50. Dinner entrees: $8.95-$14.95
- Noise level: Quiet
- Wheelchair access: Yes
Reading up about the food traditions that characterize southern and northern India, I learned that in much of the country of over 1 billion people, both Hindu and Muslim populations have long traditions of vegetarianism, though for different reasons. Accordingly, Suvai, like many Indian restaurants, has a wide selection of vegetarian options.
In addition to the large population and the diversity in regional foods, India is similar to China in that rice dishes are more common in the south, and wheat bread and noodle dishes more common in the north. The large crisp grilled rice and lentil pancakes called dosas are common in the south, and the tandoori cooking method is used more in the north. As a result of ancient invasion by dairy-loving Aryan tribes, certain regions are also known for dishes featuring yogurt and the fresh cheese called paneer along with many milk-based desserts.
Some impressions of individual dishes:
I started dinner with a rose lassi, rather than the more common mango lassi. Some people don't like the flavor of flowers in their food, but I love floral touches. Pale pink in the glass, the rose lassi is a cool and smooth drinkable yogurt flavored with sweet rose water. A refreshing and relaxing way to begin a meal from an exotic land. Thumbs up for the rose lassi.
The Dahi Vadai appetizer was described as "soft fried lentil in yogurt," which I found to be an odd description for the dish that arrived. In it, three small lentil flour vada fritters were bathed in an addictively spiced bowl of cool yogurt. Flavored with chopped curry leaves, ginger, and cumin, I could not stop eating that delicious yogurt sauce.
I liked the yogurt so much I asked our waitress what spices they used in it. Soon the owner was at our table explaining that all their spices are fresh and they make everything by hand, including their own yogurt and paneer. I made a mental note of that.
In order to experience as many tastes as possible we ordered the vegetarian thali (passing up the meat thali with "fish fry, lamb curry and chicken curry"). Thali, meaning "plate" in Hindi, "consists of delicacies native to that region." Many small dishes of food are served on a metal platter (the thali) so it is like your own personal smorgasbord.
Although the menu said we would get "Chappati, Dal, Plain rice, Variety rice, Soup, Yogurt rice, Pappad, and Dessert," our Thali actually came with nine dishes in small metal bowls in addition to the flat chappati bread, crispy pappad and plain rice. The menu really needs some work, because the food was much better than those dry-as-dust descriptions sound.
The description also neglected to mention the delicious palak paneer (creamy spinach with cubes of fresh house-made paneer) that came with the thali. The "variety rice" turned out to be basmati rice cooked with lentils and flavored with tart tamarind. Dal Makhani, "lentils and beans cooked in cream, butter, and spices," was delicately spiced, rich and satisfying, like a hug from the Indian grandma I don't have.
Only the Navaratan Korma "mixed vegetables cooked with nuts, raisin in light spice sauce" fell short, I thought. I was put off by the fact that the dish looked like (and the mushy carrots tasted like) the cook had just opened a bag of frozen mixed vegetables and stirred them with some tasty sauce. That seemed like phoning it in.
Things picked up again with the Andhra Masala Dosa, or "thin rice crepe with layers of spicy sauce filled with potatoes." Andhra Pradesh is a southern Indian state, and Masala Dosa is a dosa stuffed with potato, so I'm guessing this is a regional specialty.
If you haven't had one before you should definitely try a dosa. The paper-thin but impossibly huge, crisp pancake is made of a fermented rice and lentil batter, cooked on a tava (griddle), and folded into a triangle enclosing a savory (often potato-based) filling.
Our dosa completely covered a huge dinner platter, and was served with a coconut chutney and mildly spicy sambar to dip it in. The "spicy sauce" inside appeared to be a red chili paste spread in a very thin layer on the crepe and added only mild heat. But with the soft potato filling flavored with onion and turmeric, it was still everything I want in a dosa - savory and comforting on the inside, crisp and yielding on the outside. Crave-worthy food in my book.
For dessert they were out of the rasmalai "Indian style cottage cheese dumplings in sweetened milk," so instead we ordered the carrot halwa, "grated carrots cooked in honey and butter." Served warm, this dark orange, finely chopped small mound turned out to be a dish that was more like candy than carrot. I enjoyed it, but it was so sweet and rich that I was glad that my husband and I shared an order. We also ordered the "South Indian style" masala coffee, but I will stick with chai tea in the future.
Suvai does not have the large display windows or outdoor seating that many popular places offer to see and be seen, and perhaps that is why it was mostly devoid of students at dinnertime. It may also be less appealing to students because the indoor vibe is more Howard Johnson's than hipster hangout. Still, many of the other diners seemed to be regulars, couples seeking a nice meal and quiet conversation. And Suvai is perfect for that. There was only one waitperson, but she was energetic and efficient.
One of the things I love about good Indian food is that it seems to leave no tastebud behind. Like many of the great cuisines of the world, there is a philosophy underlying the food.
In the Winter 2012 issue of Repast, the newsletter of the Culinary Historians of Ann Arbor, Veronica Sidhu writes "Historically, Ayurveda, the ancient Hindu science of health and diet, promulgated a balance of six tastes: salty, sweet, sour, bitter, pungent, and astringent The ancient texts Caraka Sambita and the Susrita Sambita Vedas recommended that the six tastes be present at every meal This way of conceptualizing food has left remnants up to the present." (Repast, Winter 2012, pg. 7).
I found the six tastes well represented in our meal, although the menu descriptions were strangely inscrutable. It seemed the expectation was that diners would already know what something like "Dahi Vadai" is. We plunged ahead with what little guidance was offered, and although we tried to be restrained in our ordering I still managed to stuff myself silly.
Seeking just a little more of that creamy, spicy sweet-sour yogurt sauce, or another crispy, salty corner of the dosa, or final tiny cube of savory paneer. Wanting just a little more is about the best I ever hope for at any restaurant. I look forward to going back again for both lunch and dinner.