Saturday, May 21, 2011

The Restaurant So Bad It Shall Not Be Named

I recently spent an incredibly rad veg-end with some incredibly rad peeps.  We had an awesome day that started with Sprig and Vine, continued with a trip to Vegan Treats, and included lots of other non-eating (!?) fun in between. 

Unfortunately, the last stop on our tour of the suburbs was an abysmal experience at a vegetarian Indian restaurant- despite it having come highly recommended from an extremely well-respected, vegan source. This was one of those times that seemed to confirm that these experiences seem to disproportionately happen to me than to the rest of the world.  Oh yeah, and to those in the unenviable position of being with me

The decor of the restaurant was unexpected: kind of cafeteria chic...without the chic.  The lighting was totally bizarre; while it inexplicably made for nicely lit photos, in person the reverse blacklight effect made the colors of our clothes appear distorted and gave me an instant headache.  To be fair, that also could have been caused by the unattended children that were playing maniacally with the noisy vertical blinds directly behind my seat.  But the place was packed; we figured all of those people couldn't be wrong.

We were directed toward a table with partially filled plastic pitchers of water and no table settings.  Four menus were thrown at our party of five adults with the barely audible warning, "Descriptions are in the menu", which we took as, "Don't ask any questions."  The menus were odd, to say the least.  Laminated and spiral bound, not all of us had the same version.  To make matters more confusing, some whole pages were covered with a label reading, "coming soon" that was practically worn off with age (we did ask; these things were still unavailable).

When we asked for cups, a stack was tossed onto the edge of our table.  Napkins?  A fistful thrown.  Silverware?  Deposited in a pile.  So it was no surprise that when we asked which items could be made without ghee, the waitress literally ran away.  Granted it was only about a ten foot distance to speak to the man who had seated us, but it was quite off-putting.  We watched them speak to each other with considerable animation, but then he returned to our table stone-faced and ready to take our order as if he knew nothing of our request.  When it was repeated, he indicated that the only ghee-less option was dosa; this was not at all what we had been told by other vegan patrons.  Why would we have traveled to this venerable strip mall for dosa when we can get vegan dosa anywhere?  He was particularly short with the friend seated closest to him and, were we not a full table of (believe it or not) still hungry vegans, I definitely would have left on principle.  But we were hungry for Indian food and there on a glowing recommendation, so we stayed.  We again made our request clear and he too took unceremonious leave of our table. 

When a third waitperson finally appeared we had all given up and just ordered dosas all around.  She sweetly asked why and, defeated, we explained that we were vegans who could not eat ghee.  She rattled off a number of other items that supposedly could be made without it, but we amended our orders only slightly- not willing, at this point, to take her at her word.

The food came out practically immediately.  My friend's appetizer (served seconds before her dosa) was tasty, but I have a hard time believing it didn't contain ghee; they were obviously pre-made- which is fine, but one must always assume the pre-made default is ghee.  Additionally, it was extremely spicy when she specifically confirmed that it wouldn't be.

The masala dosas were generic in size, with the absolute least amount of potato filling I've ever encountered (and I've had some crappy dosas).  We surmised that the kitchen had enough filling for one dosa and instead spread it out so that each order contained a forkful worth.  Besides being minimal in quantity, the "filling" was unsettlingly white, with no discernible Indian spice whatsoever. 

Front to back:

  • The red chutney was pleasant enough, but the cool temperature was unusual.
  • The coconut chutney was super-sweet, almost as though they had accidentally ordered sweetened shreds instead of the customary unsweetened.
  • We didn't trust the other white sauce to be vegan so no one tried it.
  • I will say that the sambar was the most only delicious part of the meal.
My order of the chana batura was a mild, unappealing looking chickpea stew served with deep-fried dough literally dripping with oil.  The stew was decent at best, the bread only tolerable. 

Underneath the bread was a thick slice of white onion; anyone have any idea why??

Unfortunately (or fortunately: depending on how you look at it), one person at our table never received his dinner.  I suppose that in the same way they only had enough filling for one of the masala dosas, they had none for the vegetable dosa he ordered.  So, it would seem that their tactic was to just simply ignore him.  Eventually, one of our group physically got up from the table in order to seek out a restaurant staff member and let them know that we were one dinner short.  The response was a mumble about there being some sort of issue in the kitchen, but no one ever attempted to correct the situation; instead, our table was avoided like the plague.  When a friend went up to the register to say that we were done eating and that the final meal had never arrived, the answer was, "Okay, so you want the check?" 

Actually, what we all wanted was just to go home and forget this "meal" had ever happened.


  1. That's depressing. The Saravana Bavan in Chennai is fantastic, and the food (although pretty standard-fare) is consistently tasty. Such a shame that the one in the USA sucks so hard.

  2. The meal was absolutely disgusting. That's all I have to say about that.

  3. Abby,

    I don't understand how such an established restaurant could act so unestablished and poor.

  4. Hi Abby! I really enjoy reading your blog, and I'm sorry that you didn't enjoy the place (which I think I can guess, since i LOVE this place enough to know what each dish looks like :D) . The service sounds as bad as it usually is when we go there and I can understand how it can overshadow the food.
    I just wanted to give you a couple of pointers, being south Indian and vegan so that future trips to any south indian vegetarian restaurant might be a little easier to navigate. Most south Indian things don't come pre-made with ghee (you can say that for north Indian things though). Ghee in south indian food is usually used for some seasoning that they MIGHT put at the end or (traditionally) to fry dosas, something that I've never come across in any South Indian restaurants in NJ who chose oil instead, for cost purposes. All sweets, however, will come drenched in ghee so avoid at all costs. The white chutney is actually a delicious coconut (with either some powdered peanut or roasted bengal gram) chutney, which is vegan. The green chutney has coconut but is more of a mint/coriander chutney. All the chutneys (except the red tomato chutney) are always raw and hence are traditionally stored below room temperature so that they don't spoil quickly because of the coconut ( a must in the scorching heat of south india).
    The raw onion in the chana bhatura is actually a common practice in Indian restaurants and homes. Most chana bhaturas, pav bhavis, paratha kurma at Indian restaurants come with raw onion and lemon. They could have avoided smuggling it under the bhatura though. :(
    Unfortunately, most Indian restaurants are VERY ignorant about veganism and some are more blunt about it than others. The restaurant does serve authentic south indian food as is evidenced by its popularity. Their most popular dish might be the dosa, but it's definitely not their best. One of their best dishes is bisibelabath, a spicy sambar-rice dish which happens to be vegan. Most things minus any raitha that they might come with on the side, are vegan.

    P.S. Most of the time, we can't keep up with their service or the ambience either and just opt for take out instead. :(

  5. P.S. I reread your post and found the link confirming it to be the delicious catastrophe that is Saravana Bhavan. :S

  6. There aren't enough pointers in the world to convince me to revisit this trainwreck.

    The waitstaff can only be described as terrible. And not just terrible as waiters, but actual terrible human beings. More importantly, I found the food to be awful as well. I have no words to express my disgust and disappointment in what I ate, I won't even try.

    There are too many places to get amazing Indian food, and as an added bonus, you don't have to deal with the attitudes and abysmal service of this staff. I really don't know how they stay in business.

  7. To add further, we were not the only table having issues while we were there. We noticed several meals being delivered to the wrong table, other customers complaining, and the lighting is simply depressing.

    A person should not need pointers to order food at a restaurant. This is not like learning how to ride a bike. It's ordering food, and believe it or not, but the five of us who had this experience actually order food quite often- often times at Indian Restaurants (read: we are not your average white person who has no idea what is what). So please save your pointers for your five year old niece on how to keep their balance, and I'll take my business and appetite somewhere it will be appreciated.

    And to whomever wrote the 5 star yelp review (I can not help but think you also read this blog) I have never been to a NJ Indian Restaurant (I grew up in the Garden State and have been to dozens) where the service is constantly "Erratic and most disappointing" this is as lame as an excuse as the defense of Dominique Strauss-Kahn made by Ben Stein- Your simply stereotyping and entire population in an unfair way, in an attempt to salvage your own opinion of this eatery. Finally, asking with a smile did nothing. We asked about Ghee, the servers seemed to have no idea what it even was. I remain disgusted and unconvinced that this place is worth a revisit. NEXT.

  8. Pecan, I couldn't agree more. Going to a restaurant is supposed to be an enjoyable experience, not one that requires instructions to survive.

    And for a restaurant to be clueless about and disinterested in dietary restrictions is disrepectful, dangerous, and unacceptable.

  9. Dino, a friend has been to the SB in NY & says it was bad, but no where near this atrocity.

    Anthony, you make an excellent point. But even if we were clueless as to what/how to order, should the waitstaff really be alienating any kind of new customers seemingly on purpose? Bizarre. Next indeed.


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