A cold rain falling since mid-morning had turned my mood muddy. News that the lunch service at Sai Krishna Bhavan is buffet-only added no sunshine to the mix.
My heart was set on dosa, which can't withstand the inhospitable conditions of the steam table. Oh, well.
At the buffet ($8.99 weekdays) I found about a dozen simmering vegetarian curries, grilled okra and tamarind rice. A second table held soups—rasam, very spicy, and sambar—milder, with lentils—along with good naan, samosa and kadfi, which retained their crispiness despite the lag time between fry basket and plate.
Every dish was well-made, though the rasam was too hot for my taste. Nonetheless, my gray mood persisted. A waiter lingered in the dining room, offering to answer questions. A large man wearing an air of quiet concern, he sensed the source of my sour expression.
"Would you like Masala dosa?" he asked, approaching my table.
"That," I answered, "would be fantastic."
In anticipation of the dosa, I tried a spoonful of the buffet's lemon pickle, wide slivers of lemon peel coated in an orange-tinged sauce. Eureka. The perfect citrusy sourness of the preserved lemon felt like clouds parting on my palate, turning my mood sunny in an instant.
The dosa arrived in moments, a crisp, tender rice pancake, thin and delicate around the edges with a portentous bulge of potato and onion in its middle. I dipped a soft, chunky forkful into the coconut chutney at the waiter's suggestion and found a magical amalgam of textures and flavors: warm and cold, chewy and crisp, savory and slightly sweet. Note to lunch diners: Dosas come with the meal. Ask.
Renewed by lemon pickle, dosa and a warm cup of sturdy masala chai, I perked up enough to soak in my surroundings.
Sai Krishna Bhavan is a cheery spot inside The Market at Perimeter Park, a standard-issue strip mall just south of the of N.C. 540-N.C. 54 intersection, so new it looks like a child's giant toy right out of the box. Inside, mango and dusty plum walls brighten the setting. The décor is spare and smart, with just a few prints and friezes. The decorators skipped the wall-to-wall bric-a-brac that often overwhelms the eye at Indian eateries.
Sai Krishna Bhavan is the first venture for Rajendra Yarlagadda, better known as Prasad. He's a veteran restaurant manager, including a stint at Cary's Udupi Café, and a 10-year resident of the Triangle. The menu focuses on Southern Indian vegetarian cuisine.
As Indian menus go, it seems modest in scope, offering 15 dosas (prices vary) and 13 curries ($9.99). I take that as a sign of self-awareness and restraint. Too many Indian restaurants try to offer a taste of everything without mastering anything. Casual fans of the cuisine will find cross-cultural favorites including samosa, Mulligatawny soup, palak paneer and vegetable korma. Comfort over adventure is an option, but branching out is a safe bet here, too.
On my second visit, I ordered take-out. The order took a little longer than the 20 minutes predicted, about 30. It was well worth it for the cheese dosa, a large, toothsome rice pancake drizzled inside with a melted sharp orange cheese and filled with onions, peas, fresh tomatoes and green onions. My favorite was the aloo ghobi, a curry with the magical power of making cauliflower seem majestic. This whitest of vegetables has its fans, but to me it's always seemed the albino outcast of the cruciferous clan.
Like the lemon pickle before it, aloo ghobi proved a revelation. A velvety, tan cream sauce redolent with mild curry flavors encased cauliflower that was roasted just until it was perfectly al dente. The dish had a flowery fragrance and a steady heat that snuck up beneath the creaminess in an intriguing way. It's a wonder what a small discovery and a lingering tingle on the tongue can do for the spirit.