Chennai Dosa has changed its name to Artisanz (part of the “Chennai Dosa Group”, apparently). Crimez againzt the letter z aside, I have no reports to say whether this review is still valid: I’ve heard rumours that they’ve done away with the steel trays and prices are up slightly, so caveat emptor and all that.
Chennai Dosa has been on my list of places to review since the very beginning and it’s probably remiss that it’s taken me so long to get there. It seems to fall between countless stools in the Reading food scene; too big for lunch and too small for dinner, not expensive but not mega cheap, right in the centre but away from the main streets. Even so, it has carved out quite a niche by offering fast-ish food from south India, setting it apart from holy trinity of curry, rice and naan offered at Reading’s other – more Anglicised – Indian restaurants.
It would appear to be good at it, because visiting early on a week night I was pleased to see that it was busy; excellent news, because there are few things more uncomfortable than reviewing an empty restaurant (in fact, if anything, it was even busier when I left). The menu here is overwhelming for newcomers: nearly 150 dishes, a quite head-scratching amount. I was certain that I would have the dosa, as it would be churlish not to, but what else could I try to get a decent sample?
Starting with the “Gobi 65” turned out to be one of my better ideas. Small florets of broccoli (not the cauliflower advertised on the menu but I’ll overlook that on this occasion) marinated in spices and then fried were just gorgeous – light and spicy without being overly hot. They were the kind of fun vegetables that could almost persuade kids to eat their greens (and a lot more tasteful than their close relative, Eiffel 65 – an earworm I had for the rest of the evening thanks to Chennai Dosa).
The other starter of chicken varuval was equally successful, if quite substantial. Large pieces of chicken cooked with south Indian spices in a delicious, dry, deep red sauce, with peppers, onions and curry leaves. It had a depth of flavour – and a slow, building heat – that I would struggle to adequately describe but which would definitely made me order it again. The chicken, sometimes a bit dry in Indian restaurants, was beautifully soft and the sauce was richer than Donald Trump (and infinitely more palatable). Hearty food, this – so hearty than it could easily have passed itself off as a main course.
Speaking of the mains, they started to turn up before we’d finished off our starters, which I found irksome. I guess as a relatively informal dining experience Chennai Dosa takes the same approach as Wagamama in that your dishes arrive when they feel like it, but I wasn’t expecting that and it’s always been a bugbear of mine. Besides, why divide your menu into starters and mains if you’re going to bring them all at roughly the same time? That, coupled with the erratic service, meant that the mains arrived before one of the drinks – a pint of Kingfisher we had to ask for a total of four times. The irony: this must be the only Indian meal I’ve ever had in Reading where getting the waiter to bring beer to the table has proved difficult.
Of the mains, dal with paratha was pleasant verging on dull. The dal had curry leaves, small chunks of tomato and was speckled with nigella seeds and was tasty enough when scooped with a torn piece of buttery paratha but it lacked the richness and complexity of the chicken or the spice of the gobi. I guess I’m used to the intense, rich dal of places like House Of Flavours which is strong enough to stand as the main attraction, but this felt like a side dish pure and simple; my mistake, perhaps, rather than the kitchen’s.
The dosa, on the other hand, was delicious. What arrived at the table was a shiny stainless steel prison tray with a number of sauces, chutneys, sambar etc. on one side and a huge – and I mean huge – folded over crepe filled with curry on the other. The texture of the dosa was a thing of wonder – slightly crisp on the outside while being soft and pliable in the middle (a bit like the first pancake on Shrove Tuesday that the chef sneakily eats in the name of quality control). The filling was a huge helping of potato masala with an equally generous portion of spiced chicken on top. This is definitely the thing to order, I reckon, and everything about it was marvellous. The masala was a mixture of firm chunks of potato and gooey, comforting mash. The chicken was full of spices – cardamom, star anise and cinnamon all ended up on the side at the end – and again, the texture was exactly right. Add to that the part-crispy, part-spongy dosa to grab, scoop and dip and the range of sauces to mix things up with and you have something that’s part meal, part edible adventure playground. I loved it.
Despite feeling quite full I just cannot resist gulab jamun so dessert was inevitably on the cards. They’re a known quantity for me by now and Chennai Dosa’s were nice but unexceptional, delicious and unsurprising: warm, squidgy and with more syrup than, erm, Donald Trump (I really don’t know why he keeps cropping up. Sorry about that.) They were bettered though, by the honey and rose kulfi which was like a Mini Milk from heaven. If you can imagine a super creamy ice cream lollipop with subtle, grown-up honey and rose flavours then you’ll have a pretty good idea what this tasted like. At £2.25 I had half a mind to order another and eat it on the way home.
To drink we had a couple of disappointing mango lassis, a pint of Kingfisher – eventually – and a huge glass of red wine (unintentionally huge but I did drink it all) that came in a glass so chalky from the dishwasher that you could have written on a blackboard with it. Service was adequate but forgetful, though to be fair Chennai Dosa is as close to a canteen as it is a restaurant, with a snappy turnaround of diners and tables rarely occupied for more than 45 minutes at a time. The bill for three courses with drinks for two was thirty six pounds. I would say it was without tip but it seems there is no concept of tip here – the bill has to be paid in cash at the till and there’s no tip jar, let alone the idea of the “optional” service charge.
As so often, I was so keen to try everything Chennai Dosa had to offer that I’m pretty sure my experience wasn’t typical. I don’t think this is a three course starter, main, dessert kind of a place: it’s somewhere you can grab a quick tasty lunch or a quick tasty dinner and then be on your way. But for that it’s pretty close to unimprovable. The dosa in particular, at less than a fiver, is just perfect and made me think twice about spending close to that at countless other lunch places in town. The worst thing about eating here – apart for the interminable wait for drinks – was also the best incentive to come back: seeing all manner of different dishes arriving at other tables and wondering what they were. Next time I might pluck up the courage to go over and ask – right after I’ve finished some more of that Gobi 65. And got rid of that earworm, with mind bleach if necessary.
Chennai Dosa – 7.0
11-13 Kings Road, RG1 3AR