Its sign boldly declares it the “world’s no. 1 Indian vegetarian restaurant chain,” but Chennai-born Saravanaa Bhavan slipped relatively quietly into Bangkok in December 2015. The numbers don’t lie: 39 branches in India, another 47 in countries all over the world, and counting. The restaurant’s ubiquity in its home state of Tamil Nadu, in India’s South, means locals often refer to it as their version of McDonald’s.
Starting in 1981, Saravanaa’s rags-to-riches rise packs all the murder and intrigue of a Bollywood movie. Yes, murder—back in 2001, owner P. Rajagopal was sentenced to life in prison for the killing of a love rival, though he’s controversially spent almost all the years since out on bail. Putting aside any possible moral misgivings about dining here, this is some superb Southern Indian cuisine.
The menu is gargantuan but typically centers on the holy trinity of dosa (thin rice and lentil crepes with various fillings), idli (steamed lentil rice cakes) and vada (crispy lentil doughnus). A small army of male wait-staff and cooks deliver dishes on steel serving trays, adding genuine warmth to the over-sized and over-illuminated, canteen-like dining room. The whole setup is not as accommodating to outsiders as some of Silom’s more touristy Indian establishments, but you’re rewarded with staples that are typically a notch above.
Take the milagai podi masala dosa (B150), which arrives perfectly crisp with a generous dollop of delicately spiced potatoes whose flavor is elevated by an aromatic sesame powder. Likewise, the medhu vada (crispy lentil doughnut with sambar chutney, B125/2 pieces) come soft and moist on the inside with barely a trace of oil. By now you’ve realized this isn’t exactly all healthy eating—but it’s darn well wholesome. Meat-lovers will find much to enjoy in protein-heavy dishes like the kaima idli (B140), which sees deep-fried lentil cakes mixed in a spicy tomato-based sauce with a range of veggies. Delicious and filling. The dal makhani (black lentil and kidney soup, B160), too, is fiery, thick and hearty just as you want.
Drink and dessert options are also exhaustive (no booze, though), with the mango lassi (B120) and super-spongy gulab jamun
(B110/2 pieces) making for particularly impressive choices. What stands out about the kitchen is the boldness of the flavors and the consistency. That adds up to slightly higher prices than you might pay elsewhere, but we think they’re justified. On this evidence, Saravanaa Bhavan is one of India’s biggest dining exports for good reason. No alcohol allowed.
This review took place in November 2015 and is based on a visit to the restaurant without the restaurant's knowledge. For more on BK's review policy, click here.