Curry the flavor

Kaveri’s selling point is that it is the only Indian restaurant in Sacramento offering authentic southern Indian cuisine. Most of the standard Indian fare we often see is mainly of northern origin: tandoori, vindaloo, tikka and nan bread, for example. Naturally, then, I was curious to explore and compare Kaveri’s southern cuisine with the more common selections found at most Indian places.

Staying on the safe side, of course, Kaveri does feature a complete standard Sacramento Indian restaurant menu, while allowing a small additional space for their southern specialties from Andhra Pradesh and Madras. These are all vegetarian and are generally savory cake and batter-based items. The “Kaveri Combo” ($5.95) is a good place to start for the newcomer to southern Indian food. Including one idli, one methu vada, sambar and a masala dosa, the combo is a distinct departure from your basic chicken saag and basmati rice. It’s also really cheap for the amount of food you’re served.

Idli are round, steamed rice cakes with a soft and pleasant texture, and methu vada, made with lentil flour, are of a similar composition—only deep-fried and externally crispy. While neither item alone will overwhelm you with flavor, once treated with the mint, chile, and coconut dipping sauces on hand, they become a nice bit of filler, if not a satisfying main course. An equally good use for these cakes is to dip them in your sambar, an intensely spiced and utterly delicious lentil and vegetable soup redolent of cumin seed.

But the main attraction of this combo is the masala dosa, a massive lentil flour crepe—at least a foot long—wrapped burrito-like around a central mass of vegetable curry. Toward the edges, the crepe is thin and crisp, while, as you move toward the center, it becomes a bit thicker and softer, creating a nice contrast of textures. Just as important, all the Indian families eating at Kaveri were eating dosas, so you know if you want to be hip, that’s what you’ve gotta order.

If you’re not up to sampling the various Andhra and Madras specialties, though, you can also have outstanding northern cuisine at Kaveri. Mixed vegetable pakoras ($4.50), for example, were by far the best I’ve had. Many pakoras I’ve tried are mixtures of peas and other sometimes unidentifiable veggies all in one mass, fried brown and crisp, but Kaveri’s were almost tempura-like in that each piece was of one large batter-surrounded vegetable. There was a big potato slice, a big round piece of eggplant, and, best of all, whole hot chilies stuffed with cumin and anise seeds. The batter, as well, was slightly firm on the outside, rather than crispy, and had almost the consistency of a pancake.

Dipping sauces were the same as for the southern combo, but I should mention as well that these, too, were excellent. The mint sauce was fresh and lively, the chile very spicy and well balanced, and I’d never had a sauce quite like the delicious and semi-spicy coconut puree.

Main courses of chicken biriyani ($10.00) and chicken makhan ($12.95) were similarly well handled. The biriyani contained oversized chunks of tender chicken in delicately flavored saffron basmati rice with a nice curry sauce and raita accompaniment; and the chicken makhan was tasty as well, but perhaps too assertive with its black pepper seasoning. Not that it was too spicy, just somehow too dominated by black pepper. But this is a minor complaint about a restaurant that generally impressed and satisfied me.

Though located in an inconspicuous and not particularly alluring strip mall, and though only sparsely decorated inside, Kaveri knows where to put its best efforts: into preparing fresh, clean and well-seasoned food. And because of this, and because of the menu’s uniqueness, Kaveri is my current favorite Indian restaurant in town.