Thanjai: New South Indian Restaurant in Montreal

So there are two reasons why I can’t go back to my favourite dosa place. It’s called Bombay Choupati and it’s in Dollard-des-Ormeaux, which is about 45 minutes by car from my house. I prefer my bike to a car, but my lack of a vehicle and the distance are not my reasons. My reasons have to do with a very nice server and his tupperware I lost. Even without the recovered tupperware I’m afraid I couldn’t face his mother. And you have to understand that I used to book my appointments at the SAAQ (driver’s license place, not liquor store) so that I could swing lunch at this place before or after. But no longer.

Such is my obsession with dosa – rice and lentil crepes generally stuffed with spiced potatoes and served with sambhar and chutneys. Sure, I can make it myself, but it’s a lot of work to make three different chutneys, one soup, a complicated potato dish and a batter that takes 1 1/2 days to ferment. Did I mention it’s very affordable, what with the lack of meat and abundance of cheap lentils and vegetables?

So when I heard from a farmer about a new South Indian restaurant at Van Horne and Victoria (just east of there, on the north side, as it turns out) I sent out on a quest. I walked from Vendome metro on a gorgeous day (don’t do this. The restaurant is right next to Plamondon. Go there instead) and just when I was about to give up, having walked east from Victoria, I decided to double back and make sure I wasn’t blind. Fortunately, I am. The SAAQ should never have taken that bit about needing eyeglasses off my driver’s license, I guess.

thanjai-south-indian-dosa-montreal

Thanjai – a nondescript storefront set back from the rush of Van Horne. I got there around 4pm when nobody else was there except two young South Asian guys sitting at a table enjoying some snacks. A man greeted me and gave me a menu, and not knowing if he spoke English or French, I said, “Merci.” I then read through the menu and waited 10 minutes before two women came back from their break and chastised the man for not giving me water or taking my order. It was pretty cute. At least that’s what I think happened because it happened in Hindi, and I only speak English and French, unfortunately.

The menu is lovely. Not the menu itself – that’s plastic and cheap – but the selection. Idli and vada but more kinds and in sambhar and not. And then the dosa menu is a page long. There are spicy versions and stuffed versions with potato or egg or spices, and ones with ghee and/or onions and some without garlic and onions (for Saatvic-only Hindus), and paper thin versions. They also do a thicker pancake called appam and those rice noodles with coconut called hoppers served with coconut milk and onion curry called sothi and a very fiery red pepper paste called sambol (this is the chili-lovers breakfast of champions). And then they do standard curries and snack foods like Kothu roti and chili chicken and simple spiced egg stir-fries (egg masala) that don’t appear much on Indian menus but are staples in Indian homes and cookbooks.

thanjai-south-indian-dosa-montreal-kottu-roti

Sign with pictures of chili chicken, egg masala and kottu roti

The nice thing about dosa is that when the potato filling and chutneys and sambhar are made in advance, all you do is heat a griddle and make the dosa wrap itself, and lunch can be ready in 10 minutes. And it was. Actually, my idli came first – the spongy steamed orbs of just the fermented rice and lentils served with sambhar and chutneys.

idli-at-thanjai-south-indian-dosa-montreal

Steamed idli with (from left to right) tomato chutney, sambhar and coconut chutney

Here the chutney were coconut with black mustard seeds, and sweet-and-sour tomato. The sambhar was thin and not too spicy. It had heat that hit only after swallowing, so a few times I broke out into sweat a minute after a spoonful of the tomato-based soup with cubed, softened vegetables. A good sambhar shouldn’t be mushy, but it should be soft comfort food and a blend of fresh spices mixed with tamarind and tomatoes. No need for extra salt or broth or bouillon cubes to give it some depth if it’s made with freshly ground spices. It’s a morning dish and a snack and it should go down easy with the idli. And it did. The coconut chutney wasn’t made with fresh coconut but the mustard seeds made it better. You just don’t find a lot of fresh coconut in this city, and it’s not as though they’re growing on trees, but the restaurant I went to once in Mississauga‘s coconut chutney was better…the one in Flushing, NY was okay too, though their dosa was much greasier, and I liked the lightness of Thanjai.

idli-at-thanjai-south-indian-masala-dosa-montreal

Doesn't look like much but this dosa is stuffed with spiced potatoes and a lot of chili-coated ground lentils. It's served with a tomato-onion chutney, sambhar and coconut chutney

Better than Montreal’s Maison Indian Curry? I think so. The crepe wasn’t as latticed as it was at MIC, which I think is cool, but the low-grease factor won out.

Mostly the grease comes from the filling. Potato soaks up oil like a sponge, so if the potato filling is greasy it all leaches into the dosa. The trick to eating dosa is to eat the crispy end bits first and use them to scoop out the filling. You need to open the dosa up with your right hand and eat only with you (washed) right hand. That’s the traditional way. The left hand isn’t for eating, and lets just leave it at that. Then when all the crispy bits of dosa are eaten you can eat the oily pieces under what’s left of the filling. All the while you dip the pieces into the chutneys or sambhar (‘m pretty sure you’re allowed to dip in the sambhar. I’m pretty sure you’re also allowed to use a spoon or just drink it straight, though). Just don’t use a fork and knife. This is food to be eaten with your fingers. Your fingers shouldn’t end up covered in food either. It’s a pretty delicate technique, using your fingers to wrap dosa carefully around fillings and dip them without getting sauces all over your fingers. I don’t think you’re really supposed to suck on your fingers, either, so good luck. Once you get the hang of it it’s probably fairly easy. Hari Nayak has an intro about it in his cookbook, I think. I learned it from friends and from a person to whom I owe tupperware.

I like it when I see fresh curry leaves in the potato filling or the chutney and sambhar, and I did see those here. But the best surprise was that tomato chutney. It tasted like canned tomatoes with a ton of zing from salt and a lot of acidity, but absolutely no bitterness. And with the cooling coconut (the only thing that calmed the tongue after a lot of chilies in my dosa – I ordered one with a salty ground lentil chili powder added) it was perfect. I sucked back two bowls of sambhar and took half my dosa to go (I ate all the crispy bits, since it’s a shame to let them soften. That’s what’s so special about dosa in the first place. It’s the difference between a soft and a crisp tortilla, and I’m not talking Old El Paso, so if you don’t know what I mean, get yourself to a good tacqueria (El Rey del Taco in Jean-Talon, for example – notably another palce I can’t return because of a friendly server, though I don’t owe this one tupperware).

And the best part (besides sweetened condensed milk desserts that I can’t eat) is the bill for a single dosa with tax and tip won’t exceed $10. Even less for idli. And it’s really not even dive-y, so you’d be fine coming here on a date. But I’m apparently not good at those, and I now bring my own tupperware, so 4pm can also be for the self-sufficient dosa-lover.

Thanjai
When: Wed-Mon 11am – 10pm (closed Tues)
Where: 4759 Van Horne
514-419-9696
How Much: $10 for a dosa, all in

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4 Responses

  1. Marc says:

    Jolee, right down the street near Cote-Ste-Cath metro, also has bananaramas Dosa and other South Indian mouthfire treats.

    http://www.restomontreal.ca/en/1662/Jolee

  2. Marc says:

    The last time I went, which was a while ago now, it seemed pretty clean to me (but I’m not very picky in that department, my wife is better equipped). They had expanded into the space next door as well, although I’d never seen anybody else sitting down to eat there – just tons of pick up and delivery.

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