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Friday, Feb. 6, 2004



Life of spice: a South Indian oasis in central Tokyo

Fans of Indian food -- and the Food File is a lifelong member of that happy congregation -- are always pleased to discover new places to satisfy those insistent cravings for the spicy flavors of the subcontinent. As we sat down for dinner at Dhaba India, though, we felt overjoyed.

News photo
Dhaba India
News photo

The reason was simple. Too many of Tokyo's Indian restaurants are virtually indistinguishable from each other. The decor, the music, the menus -- they could be clones. Dhaba India is different.

There are none of the usual ethnic trappings -- no baubles and tinsel and faux-Mughal carvings, no keening film-score music or Bollywood videos on flickering monitors. Instead, the interior is painted a tranquil sky-blue, accented only by a couple of carpets draped down the walls, and a few unobtrusive knickknacks in alcoves. Wooden beams around the entrance to the spotless kitchen evoke rustic simplicity.

But it is the menu that truly distinguishes Dhaba India. Here, at last, is a place that emphasizes the wonderful cooking of South India. We certainly enjoy the butter-rich foods of the north, including those Punjabi staples -- tandoori chicken, naan, parathas and all the rest -- that have become the norm for Indian restaurants around the world. But given the choice we will always opt for the more subtle flavors of coconut, tamarind and curry leaf that are typical of Goa, Madras and the Malabar Coast of Kerala.

And best of all we love dosa, those large pancakes of bean and rice flour that play such a big role in South Indian life. At Dhaba India, the griddle occupies pride of place in front of the kitchen. Half the pleasure of placing your order is being able to watch the chefs at work as they prepare, pour and expertly tend to the dosa.

The simplest version is the paper dosa, which is as light and crisp as its name suggests and makes a delectable alternative to papadum as an appetizer while you are waiting for your main meal. For a more substantial snack, masala dosa are just the business. The pancake itself is rather thicker, and it is rolled around a mash of mildly spiced, turmeric-yellow potato. These are served with a saucer of sambar, a vegetable soup accented with tamarind, plus a dip of cooling, white coconut and a dab of piquant red chutney.

One lunchtime set comprises a masala dosa, plus a curry and rice, for 1,200 yen. Another set, the Dhaba lunch thali, is equally good value -- three curries plus sambar and rassam soup, with rice and bhattura (fried bread), and papadum (also 1,200 yen). But to explore the full range of the menu, you have to come back for dinner.

News photo
Chef Y. Ramanaiah

As an appetizer with our Kingfisher beer, we began with Mysore vada, tasty little deep-fried rings of bean flour and mashed vegetable, like miniature savory doughnuts, closely followed by a masala dosa and a plate of tasty tandoori gobi (battered cauliflower). This latter confirmed our suspicions that the cooks, two of whom are sons of Mother India, are no less adept with the tandoor oven as the dosa grill.

The fiery sauce of our Kerala fish curry was nicely balanced by the subtle, sweet-sour undertone of tamarind. It would have tasted even better if the fish had been freshly caught, instead of being stored on a freezer tray. The Malabari mutton curry, though, was an unqualified success. It was rich and dark, the flavorful meat cooked soft in a creamy, coconut-thickened sauce containing plenty of spices -- including curry leaf, an essential signifier of authentic Kerala cooking, but one that is still rarely found here in Tokyo.

A small point, but crucial: Dhaba India serves rice that actually tastes good. Instead of using generic long-grain rice, they use quality Basmati from India (except for weekday lunch, when the rice is Japanese). Another bonus: They place a large jug of water on your table, so you don't have to keep asking for refills.

We rounded off the meal with homemade kulfi (coconut ice cream) with mango, and cups of milky chai that are poured to and fro from saucer to cup (just as it should be done) to froth it up and simultaneously cool it down. We went home replete and happy.

Dhaba India
2-7-9 Yaesu, Chuo-ku; Tel: (03) 3272-7160
Open:11:15 a.m.-2:30 p.m. (last order) and 5-10 p.m. (last order); Saturday: 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; 5-9 p.m.
Closed:Sunday and holidays
Nearest stations: Kyobashi (Ginza Line)
How to get there:Leave Kyobashi Station by Exit 5, turn right and walk down Kajibashi-dori for one block (toward the Tokyo International Forum). Take the first side street to the right; Dhaba India is on the left after 30 meters.
What works: The best South Indian food in town
What doesn't:Sadly they don't serve idlis, appam or othappam.
Number of seats: 60 (including 7 at the counter)
BGM: Unobtrusive Indian classical music
Price per head:Lunch from 800 yen (set lunch 1,200 yen); dinner courses from 1,900 yen (vegetarian) and 2,000 yen (non-veg); also a la carte
Drinks:Beer from 500 yen; cocktails 700 yen; wine from 500 yen/glass, 2,500 yen/bottle
Credit cards: Most accepted
Language:Japanese/English menu; some English spoken
Reservations: Advisable (but not accepted for weekday lunches).

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