College students, travelers, and restaurant critics may feel the lack of home-cooked meals with the pain of a memory lost, a vital nutrient denied their systems. But most of America looks forward to a restaurant meal as a break from home cooking. So I generally find it disingenuous when restaurants advertise their "homestyle" food.
However, that claim has brought me back, over and over again, to Ruchi Indian Cuisine, a four-month-old south Indian restaurant on Third Street. "We cook everything fresh every day," the waiter announced on my first visit as he checked in to see how much carnage I was wreaking on a vegetarian thali. Tall and muscled, with a well-buffed pate and a voice built for oratory, he looked like the Bollywood Yul Brynner. "It's totally homestyle food," he continued. "Nothing fancy."
Like any good dramatic monologue, the statement was fiction electroplated onto a core of truth. Ruchi's menu displays a canny mix: a few conventional northern Indian restaurant dishes (tandoori chicken, naan, mutter paneer) to satisfy the people who will order only things they recognize. Much bigger is the selection of dosas, vadas, and southern rice dishes, as well as a couple of even more specific regional dishes from Andhra Pradesh, which Ruchi calls house specialties. There are three or four ever-changing lunch thalis daily.
But with its simplest so-called homestyle dishes, Ruchi is departing from both the old canon of Punjabi and Mughal dishes that many Americans mistake for the sum total of Indian cuisine, as well as the new canon of southern Indian fare restaurants like Dosa and Udupi Palace have brought to the city. Leave Dosa for the celebrations; come to Ruchi for lunch.
The restaurant, which took over a flailing Naan 'n' Chutney outpost in November, does most of its business at noontime — more than twice the dinner crowd, the waiter told me, which was borne out when I ate there in a half-empty room one evening. But at lunch, the booths fill with tech workers (giveaway: fleece vests) and Chronicle Books staffers; 12-person work parties often claim most of the freestanding tables.
Many of the lunchtime diners are methodically working their way around thalis on silver, low-lipped trays the size of a 12-inch record. Small stainless-steel cups ring the mound of rice at the center; a thali meal is accompanied by the musical clinking of bowls knocking against one another as your spoon dips and you spin the tray, trying to get to the dish you want.
Diners can choose from among lamb ($11.95), chicken ($10.95), fish ($11.95), and vegetarian ($8.95). The exact details will be up to the cooks, who change the makeup of the thalis every day. A few standards never change: the long-grained rice in the center, a bowl of yogurt with soft curds, triangles of naan — limper than you'd hope for, and out of place on a South Indian thali (whole-wheat chapathi or puffy poori breads would be more welcome). There is always a bowl of clear, ruddy-colored soup called rasam, whose flavor is dominated by tamarind — not just its tang, but its caramel-like depth — intertwined with the resinous, peppery aroma of curry leaves and the glow of chiles. The restaurant's sambar, or creamy golden dal, is a good one, flecked with mustard seeds and simmered with chunks of squash.
The pleasure of eating a thali is never knowing exactly where to focus. Should I spoon a little soft-curd yogurt over the rice along with a piece of the lemon pickle, or stir in some sambar? Do I eat the rasam before or after the vegetable? Do I go round and round the thali, taking one bite from each bowl, or concentrate on the main dish — a simple chicken curry in a thin, golden gravy, or a vegetarian entrée of peas and cauliflower shimmering with ginger, garlic, and cinnamon?
The size of the main dish, the only one served in a ceramic boat instead of a tiny metal cup, is tailored to Western expectations of having an "entrée." They change by the day, albeit subtly. One day, for example, the lamb curry was more redolent of coriander and the soft tang of yogurt; another day it was tinged with the deeper, toastier notes of ground nuts and lentils.
The main curries are decent but, well, nothing fancy. On my return visits to the restaurant, my first thought is always to check what the day's stir-fried vegetable will be. Whether turmeric-yellow cauliflower florets stir-fried with mustard seeds and spit peas, finely chopped green beans, or minced cabbage dense with spices and curry leaves, it is excellent. Each day, the composition of a small salad varies slightly, too; some combination of lettuce, cucumber, tomatoes, and sprouted mung beans. The dessert can be as opulent as a loose, milky tapioca pudding perfumed with cardamom, or as simple as chopped apple tossed with mango purée.
The masala dosa ($8), a fermented rice-and-lentil crepe rolled into a cylinder the size of a rolling pin, is just as papery and crisp as it should be. Working in from the outsides, dipping into a (lackluster) coconut-chile chutney, a ground-chile purée, or the sambar, you'll eventually get to a vibrantly spiced potato filling, shot through with caramelized onions and the crunch of fried lentils. If you order a dosa, do it at lunch, when the kitchen is thrumming and the waiters will rush it to you before it begins to fade. A rava, or semolina, dosa ($8) eaten one evening — lacy and riddled with air bubbles, looking like it was crocheted — spent those first crucial minutes back in the kitchen, the victim of an understaffed room. "Eat it quick!" our server urged once she brought it, but it was too late. The crisp, delicate crepe had toughened.
The medhu vadas (rice and lentil-flour doughnuts studded with curry leaves, $5) and the uttapam (a thick, onion-and-chile-studded pancake, $8) weren't particularly memorable. Nor was the coconut rice ($7), flecked with green chiles, fried cashews, and ginger, but it improved once I crumbled a papadam into it and stirred in a few spoonfuls of yogurt, and even more when I spooned in some of the greens pullakora ($8), softly spiced spinach cooked with split mung beans.
The Nellore fish curry ($12), a dish that rarely makes it out of Andhra Pradesh, came seasoned with something altogether more potent. When Bollywood Yul Brynner set the dish on the table, his bejeweled fingers sparkling, he announced: "That fish comes with a story. Nellore is a tiny fishing village outside Hyderabad. And every day, the fishermen there take fish from their nets, hack it up, squirt on a little lime, and cook it with just a little tamarind and yogurt. It's very simple food."
Simple in concept, perhaps, but not in flavor. Onions, tomatoes, and mustard seeds fleshed out the flavor of the thin crimson broth, and its tamarind-lime tang was met by the heat of the chile. Too quick a sip, and the spicy vapor would hit my lungs, evoking a gasp. So I found myself spooning more and more of the broth over rice, stealing naan from my tablemate's thali to dunk, striving to make it into the clean plate club. Ma — well, someone's ma — would have approved.