A food runner drops off the crepe at my table, and I just stare at it, hypnotized by sheer physical attraction. Its edges are translucent and pocked with holes of varying diameter. I notice how the crepe’s colors deepen into shades of brown near its center, which is almost caramelized. Microdots of green chili hide among the pancake’s craters, as if they were seeds starting to sprout.
The rava sada dosa is the moody black sheep of the dosa family. Prepared with semolina and rice flour, the fermented batter is sprinkled on a hot tawa griddle, Jackson Pollock-style, until the liquidy lines begin to spread and intersect into something resembling a crepe. The lacy dosa looks nothing like its more popular cousin, the masala dosa, with its massive tree-ring pancake folded around a mash of turmeric-tinted potatoes. The rava sada dosa better understands the value of negative space: It’s as close as you’ll get to eating crispy air, its gossamer form perfumed with cumin, chilies and ginger.
The dosa is just one of several fermented beauties available at Balaji Cafe, a Herndon hideaway named after the incarnation of Lord Vishnu and specializing in the vegetarian fare of South India. Opened in early 2014, Balaji is the latest from restaurateur Naresh Advani, a Mumbai native who has worked in the hotel and hospitality trades for four decades. He runs another restaurant in Herndon, Harvest of India, which has merged with Advani’s more formal, white-china establishment, the now-shuttered Supper Club of India.
No one will mistake Balaji Cafe for Advani’s other restaurant — and not because Harvest of India peppers its menu with animal proteins. The cavernous Balaji Cafe has all the ambiance of an airport hangar: A handful of framed photographs depicting Indian life add color and personality to this otherwise beige cinder block space. A long, mostly empty cooler runs along one wall, a ghostly reminder of the supermarket that once occupied the address.
The coolers are sort of symbolic of a problem Advani encountered when he first opened Balaji: Northern Virginia does not have the same semitropical climate as South India, which is a complication when you’re trying to ferment batters to match the flavor and consistency of the crepes back home. The kitchen quickly figured out that the idli and dosa batters preferred a warm space near the griddle, where the pilot light constantly burns blue, allowing for the proper overnight fermentation.
Whether you prefer the long-fermented batter for dosas or the quick, hand-kneaded dough for paratha flatbreads — or even the kneaded-and-fermented dough for fried bhatura bread — Balaji has you covered.
By my unofficial count, the Balaji kitchen prepares at least nine different batters and doughs daily. I’ve spent several happy afternoons and evenings here, tearing off pieces of paratha, deflating puffy bhaturas and breaking off hunks of idli rice cake to soak in the accompanying sambar, an edgy lentil stew that packs heat, fragrance and a tiny tickle of tamarind sourness.
Customization is not just rewarded, it’s required. Should your stuffed whole-wheat paratha prove a tad too bitter from its many leopard spots — those char marks imparted by a hot griddle — all you need to do is search for the provided spreads or condiments. A smear of butter, a dip in tart yogurt, a hunk of incendiary Indian pickle: Any or all of these can elevate your flatbread to the staff of (a good) life. The first time I wrapped a butter-slathered length of gobi paratha around an Indian pickle, I felt this ecstatic rush of sun, earth and spirit, a sensation that the somehow surpassed worldly pleasure. I’m not kidding.
Chef Krishna Bakarappu handles the batters, including those for the idli and dosas. His standard rice-and-lentil dosa hits that sweet spot between crisp and chewy. It also hits your table like a load of laundry. The paneer dosa, folded over a vibrant cheese filling studded with mustard seeds, smothers not just the disposable plate underneath but also the cafeteria tray that ferries the crepe. You wonder how you’re going to eat the whole thing until the very moment it’s gone, a victim of its own tastiness.
Bakarappu’s idli cakes may not be textbook soft, but they serve as excellent sponges for fellow chef Jayamani Karuppiah’s house-made sambar. The beauty of the idli-sambar partnership is that you control how much the former absorbs of the latter. The same cannot be said for the dahi vada, in which the lentil doughnuts arrive drowning in yogurt, their texture and shape reduced to sheer sogginess, the tres leches of South India.
If the bhatura doesn’t reach the same bloated, balloon-like dimensions as the fried bread at Punjabi by Nature in Chantilly’s Lotte Plaza, don’t fret. Volume, as usual, tells you next to nothing about quality. The bhatura, light and chewy, plays the perfect foil to the channa masala, a chickpea curry that supplies the fire and earth to the bread’s air. I definitely favored the channa bhatura over the halwa puri, in which puffed bread is paired with a saffron wheat pudding, a dessert-like preparation that blurred the line between grainy and creamy.
Balaji Cafe trumpets its selection of organic dishes, but unless you consider your body a GMO-free temple, I’d avoid these plates prepared with nontraditional (but organic!) ingredients such as pesto, mozzarella and alfalfa sprouts. I’d stick with the South Indian diet, with its reliance on the six Ayurveda tastes (sweet, sour, salty, bitter, pungent and astringent) for better health. Or at least for better flavor, like the small pani puri shells packed with seasoned potatoes and sprinkled with a surprisingly pungent mint water. Dishes like this, and many others, make you realize Lord Balaji has already blessed his followers with great wealth.
298 Sunset Park Dr., Herndon. 703-437-1267. balajicafe.com.
Hours: Sunday to Thursday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Nearest Metro: Wiehle-Reston East, a 2.5-mile trip from the restaurant.
Prices: $1-$9 for all items.