Dosa starts with a dollop of fermented rice and lentil batter, transformed by a piping-hot griddle into a crêpe-like creation. It’s by turns lacy, pancake-puffy and toasty warm. You pull it apart to dip, dredge and fold to carry vegetables, chutney and meat. No two bites seem precisely the same.
Dosa is at the center of Tava Indian Street Food, a new restaurant in the CBD, which takes its name for the word for the dosa griddle itself. It’s the most traditional aspect of a menu devised to depart from the familiar conventional Indian restaurant template of butter chicken and sag paneer.
Many of the dishes here start with a street food appreciation of casual shareability, and many bring the energy of second-generation fusion.
But on any visit, the dosa griddles are the center of the show, positioned along the dining counter to give a direct view into the process. It’s irresistible once you get a glimpse and a whiff.
Chef/owner Manish Patel wanted to bring a different type of Indian restaurant to New Orleans, and Tava is the result.
Tava will be familiar to some for its tenure at Auction House Market, the Warehouse District food hall that closed permanently earlier this year. Patel had started the business as a pop-up before that.
It’s true start, however, came through his family.
His father, Dalpat Patel, is a chef who traveled from his native India to the Middle East and finally to the United States through his work. He came to New Orleans for a job at the Hotel Intercontinental.
Patel grew up with the home cooking of an Indian immigrant family and also helped his father catering banquet events on the side, huge repasts of traditional Indian food for 400 or more people at weddings and such.
The third side of the equation, though, was growing up in New Orleans, versed in local food and the food trends that he and his friends pursued.
All of that goes into Tava.
Try to look past the dosa (I don’t think you’ll be able to, but try) for the most creative dishes. The 65 wings and the tater chaat tell Tava’s tale well.
The wings reference chicken 65, an Indian standard for fiery fried chicken, so think Bombay, not Buffalo. Tava’s chicken wings are redolent with chili pepper flavor, but not burn-the-palate-down heat. It’s more layered and building than blaring heat.
The tater chaat merges that kid food/comfort food standard with a street food staple of India. The concept of chaat can come through any number of different ingredients, with the unifying idea of a multitextured tapestry of different flavors. That’s the case here with your standard, puffy, crunchy tater tots as the base for a flurry of torn mint and cilantro, chutney, red onion and bits of sev, or tiny broken bits of yellow thread-like noodles.
Cocktails, add curry
Tater chaat also makes a handy bar snack, and that speaks to Tava’s significant bar program. The bar is just as much a centerpiece of the restaurant as the dosa griddles, and on nights when there’s a concert or other event nearby, it can fill in early for pre-gaming drinks and meals.
This full bar has classic cocktails recast with Indian flavors.
The bourdon old fashion swirls with the earthy flavor from masala bitters and jaggery, a syrup from unrefined cane sugar, which gives an extra heft. A mango daiquiri with rum gets a fragrant whiff of cardamom. The curry mule carries the very specific curry leaf cutting through the bittersweet soda and vodka.
It’s fun and playful, which is how Tava feels all over. The long, narrow space extends with a colorful mural art of feathers and flowers by Rebeka Skela. There’s no sitar music; hip-hop bounces from the sound system instead.
But then tradition is the stabilizing undercurrent here. The dosa comes out on rectangular steel trays, lunchroom style and a commonplace for casual Indian food. Little compartments hold the masala potato and sambhar (a thin, mellow lentil stew) or the spicy, shredded lamb vindaloo, and cups of cool, bright-tasting coconut chutney.
The dosa itself, just swirled into being on the griddles and shaped into a cone the length of your forearm, is unquestionably the centerpiece of the platter.
Tava Indian Street Food
611 O’Keefe Ave., (504) 766-9612
Wed.-Sat., 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. (expanded hours to come)
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