Dining review: Dharani offers Southern Indian adventure at every turn
By Greg Cox
Review originally published 6/23/2016
After more than two decades of reviewing restaurants (nearly 60 of them Indian), it isn’t often that I come across a dish I’ve never encountered before. Dharani, a Southern Indian restaurant that launched in late January in Morrisville, opened up a whole new world of uncharted territory. I can’t recall the last time I saw a menu with so many items I didn’t recognize.
To help me explore this terra incognita, I round up an expeditionary party of four. We ease into things, setting up a base camp at Veg Appetizer Sampler. Pakoras and samosa are both exemplary, though we wish there were more than one of the latter on the platter. Cut mirchi, crisp batter-fried rings of long green chile, primes our palates for more exotic adventure to come.
My itinerary initially included an excursion into the Non-Veg Appetizer region for chicken sukha, which the menu bills as a house specialty and describes as “chicken (with bone) roasted in special spices.” But our guide (an attentive and affable waiter who had earlier delivered a mango lassi with the jokingly apologetic description, “that’s supposed to be a smiley face on top, but it looks like it turned into an alien”) informs us that the sukha is not available tonight. So we take a detour into the more familiar territory of chicken 65. A craggy mound of deep-fried boneless nuggets, moist beneath their crisp, red spice-infused surface (medium-hot as specified), the dish is ample consolation.
Then the dosa arrives, and every jaw at the table drops. This is not your standard dosa, mind you, which is itself impressively large (and which Dharani offers in nearly a dozen variations, from cumin seed-spangled Rava to spicy potato-filled Mysore Masala). No, this is what the menu cryptically calls “paper roast 70 mm dosa.” A little advance research has revealed that “paper” refers to the thickness: thinner and crisper than the standard crepe-like dosa; and that “roast” is a shortening of “family roast,” suggesting how many people it can feed.
Oh, and “70 mm” is off by a factor of 10. The diameter of this behemoth is more like 70 cm (about 28 inches – and yes, I had to look it up). Turns out “70 mm” is a metaphoric nod to the size of the film that was once the reference standard for large movie screens.
None of these factoids prepares us for the thing itself, any more than a travel poster can capture the sheer size and majesty of the Taj Mahal. Rolled up into a tube and protruding off both ends of the platter, the dosa has to be set at an angle across the table so as not to hang over its edges. Served with the traditional dosa accompaniments – sambar (an earthy lentil soup) and a bright trio of chutneys for dipping – the paper dosa is as pleasing to the palate as it is to the eye.
The adventure continues, taking us all over the entree map, from familiar reference points of Northern Indian cuisine to exotic destinations whose names I probably mangle when ordering. Poondu milagu kuzhambu, for one – another Dharani specialty, this one featuring whole garlic cloves simmered to supple sweetness in a peppery tomato-onion gravy. And bhindi pulusu, okra in a tamarind-tangy sauce riddled with curry leaves.
I couldn’t begin to tell you if Dharani’s renditions of these dishes are authentic, but I can confirm that both are delightful destinations. And, judging by the exemplary chicken korma and lamb rogan josh – two dishes with which I am well-acquainted – I suspect natives of the region would agree.
A side excursion into Indo-Chinese territory lands us at hakka noodles, where spice-marinated morsels of chicken and a confetti of vegetables entangled in a skein of gingery oil-slicked noodles brings our journey to a gratifying conclusion.
A few days later, a second expedition – this time, just my wife and me – is also fruitful, if not as far-ranging. Here are a few snapshots from that trip:
Aam Ras Tecka Tini: a spicy mango cocktail – distilled essence of tropical flavors, kicked up with vodka that’s been infused with chiles, cilantro and citrus, and served in a sugar- and spice-rimmed glass.
Medhu vada: crisp, savory lentil doughnuts, perfect snacking companion for the cocktail.
Whole fish tandoori: pomfret, a fish whose mild, flounder-like flesh is the canvas for a lavish basting of butter and tandoori spices. Another Dharani specialty, and rightly so.
Chicken dum biryani: on-the-bone pieces, succulent under a fragrant mound of loose-grained basmati rice, freckled with turmeric and garnished with onion (caramelized and raw) and chopped cilantro.
Dharani is the first venture into North Carolina of Altamount Restaurant Group, a small Massachusetts-based collection of restaurants, each with a different name and character. In Morrisville, that character is defined by a spare contemporary decor, hospitable service and a menu that leads to adventure at every turn. Buffet stations along one wall of the cavernous dining room stand empty in the evening, but they present a tempting way to explore Dharani’s extensive offering at lunchtime. If you decide to check out the buffet, consider it a scouting mission. You will without a doubt want to return sometime in the evening for further exploration, using the menu as your map.
1000-106 Lower Shiloh Way, Morrisville; 919-991-9918
Prices: Entrees $11 to $25
Atmosphere: spare and contemporary
Noise level: moderate
Service: hospitable and attentive
Recommended: medhu vada, paper roast 70 mm dosa, tandoori whole fish, chicken hakka noodles, poondu milagu kuzhambu
Open: lunch and dinner Tuesday-Sunday.
Other: full bar; accommodates children; excellent vegetarian selection; lunch buffet; parking in lot.