Dosa starts with a dollop of fermented rice and lentil paste, transformed by a hot griddle into a pancake-like creation. It’s by turns lacy, pancake-inflated and hot. You take it apart to dunk it, dredge it up and fold it up to transport vegetables, chutney and meat. No two bites are exactly alike.
Dosa is at the center of Tava Indian Street Food, a new restaurant in the CBD, which takes its name from the word for the dosa griddle itself. It’s the most traditional aspect of a menu designed to deviate from the familiar conventional Indian restaurant model of butter chicken and sag paneer.
Many of the dishes here start with an appreciation for casual sharing street food, and many bring the energy of second-generation fusion.
But on any visit, the dosa hotplates are the center of the show, positioned along the dining room counter to give a direct view of the process. It’s irresistible once you get a glimpse and a breath of fresh air.
Chef/owner Manish Patel wanted to bring a different kind of Indian restaurant to New Orleans, and Tava is the result.
Tava will be familiar to some for his tenure at Auction House Market, the food hall in the Warehouse District which closed permanently earlier this year. Patel had started the business as a pop-up before that.
It’s true beginning, however, came through his family.
Next Generation Flavor
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 Intercontinental Hotel.
Patel grew up with the home cooking of an Indian immigrant family and also helped his father host banquets, huge meals of traditional Indian cuisine for 400 or more people at weddings, and more.
The third side of the equation, however, was growing up in New Orleans, versed in the local cuisine and food trends he and his friends were pursuing.
All this goes into Tava.
Try looking beyond 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 the story of Tava well.
The wings refer to Chicken 65, an Indian standard for fiery fried chicken, so think Bombay, not Buffalo. Tava’s chicken wings have a chilli flavor, but don’t burn the palate. It’s more layering and building than thundering heat.
Tater chaat merges this standard of children’s food/comfort food with a staple of India. The concept of chaat can go through a number of different ingredients, with the unifying idea of a multi-textured tapestry of different flavors. That’s the case here with your standard, puffy, crunchy tater tots as the base for a burst of torn mint and cilantro, chutney, red onion and chunks of sev, or tiny broken pieces of yellow threadlike noodles.
Cocktails, add curry
Tater chaat also makes a convenient bar snack, and that’s a testament to Tava’s extensive bar program. The bar is just as much a centerpiece of the restaurant as the hot dosa plates, and on nights when there’s a concert or other event nearby, it can fill up early for pre-game drinks and meals.
This complete bar offers classic cocktails revisited with Indian flavors.
The old-fashioned bumblebee swirls with the earthy flavor of bitter masala and jaggery, an unrefined cane sugar syrup, which lends added weight. A mango daiquiri with rum smells fragrant with cardamom. The curry mule carries the very specific curry leaf cutting through the sweet and sour soda and vodka.
It’s fun and playful, that’s how Tava feels everywhere. The long, narrow space is extended by a colorful mural of feathers and flowers by Rebeka Skela. There is no sitar music; hip-hop instead bounces off the PA system.
But tradition is the stabilizing undercurrent here. The dosa comes on rectangular steel trays, dining room style and a common place for casual Indian cuisine. Small compartments hold the potato masala and sambhar (a thin, fluffy lentil stew) or spicy, shredded lamb vindaloo, and cups of crisp, fresh coconut chutney.
The dosa itself, just swirling over the hot plates and shaped into a cone the length of your forearm, is unquestionably the centerpiece of the platter.
Indian street food Tava
611 O’Keefe Ave, (504) 766-9612
Wed.-Sat., 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. (extended hours to come)
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