Before chef Paulraj Karuppasamy and his partner in life and work Nellie Tischler began offering the chef’s South Indian cuisine around town about a year ago, a lot of Santa Fe diners didn’t have a clue what a dosa was, and very few had ever seen one on a local menu.
In short order after their arrival, though, the edible wares of the married couple’s Paper Dosa catering company were in high demand for dinner parties, big private gatherings and special community events. Paper Dosa also began to take advantage of the lingering pop-up-restaurant phenomenon with a months-long Monday-night residency at Café Fina and appearances at other local restaurants. In August 2014, Paper Dosa was awarded the BizMIX Big Impact Award for its business plan, which also included more than $10,000 for startup costs and accounting services.
Chef Karuppasamy and Tischler have now moved Paper Dosa (551 W Cordova Road, 930-5521) into a brick-and-mortar space by Maria’s New Mexican Kitchen, in a building once occupied by Mail Call. All signs of the former mailing-service business have been replaced with subdued matte-gray walls, India-inspired painted-pattern accents, comfortable soft-seat dining chairs and a few smartly chosen furniture pieces, which bring a subtle slice of New Mexico into the cozy mix. If you like to be near the cooking action, take a seat at the slick, poured-concrete bar, which provides a window seat to the kitchen (as well as better lighting under which to see your food). The large patio, when in use, is well protected from the nearby traffic noise.
Dosas—large South Indian crepes made from a batter of fermented rice and lentils—obviously form the restaurant menu’s center of gravity. There are a couple of ways to try them here. Some, such as one of two available masala dosas ($9), come loosely folded on a plate with the fillings tucked inside, allowing for crisp edges to form on the crepe as it cools slightly. Others are rolled a bit tighter à la burrito and have a softer consistency.
The traditional filling for the masala dosa—soft potato and spices—may sound fairly bland at first, but chef Karuppasamy and his kitchen staff know their way around Indian spices. The cornerstone of any decent Indian or South Indian cuisine is an array of toasted aromatic spices and the ability to blend them without favoring one ingredient over another. Paper Dosa succeeds in doing this with many of its dosa fillings and, in the case of the masala, elevates the potato to something much more intriguing than simple filler for curries and kormas.
A gently seasoned filling of peas and chopped, delicately acidic paneer (fresh, un-aged farmer’s cheese) adds a pleasant spongy, almost meaty texture to one of the restaurant’s most popular rolled dosas ($11), but if it spends too much time sitting on the plate, the rolled crepe tends to fall apart or get soggy.
All dosas are served with sides of slightly crunchy, subtly sweet coconut chutney, a tangy tomato chutney and a South Indian vegetable stew known as sambar. The tomato chutney and sambar are packed with flavor, but much of it is lost after the second bite beneath a cook’s heavy hand with the toasted cumin. It’s an easy spice to overuse, even for those who use it all the time.
Listed as a starter, a bowl of dahi vada ($8) adds a cooling counterpart to the orgy of spices to be found in Paper Dosa’s various entrée-sized curries, dosas and uttapam (South Indian rice-lentil pancakes with fillings cooked into the batter). Consisting of crunchy lentil fritters covered with tangy yogurt and chutneys, I would order it as a light lunch. If you like things puckery, order a small side of the housemade pickled lemons ($1) to go along with it.
About eight wines by the glass and eight wines by the bottle are reasonably priced, and all selections are smart fits for the food. Try pairing the paneer and peas dosas with a glass of Van Duzer rosé from Oregon ($10). Beers are also carefully selected. Mango lassi, South Indian chai, Aroma coffee and herbal and black teas are also available.
Karuppasamy and Tischler bring a passion to their work that has obviously been passed down to the service staff. Because the menu offers little if any description as to what most of the food items are, servers, bartenders and others on the floor must be ready to describe each dish to diners clearly and, I imagine as a newly opened joint, pretty often. They do it with a level of patience, positivity and enthusiasm missing from more than a handful of established restaurants in town that are three times as costly.
At a Glance
Open: Weekdays 5:30-9 pm Tuesday-Sunday, closed Mondays.
Best bet: Masala dosa
Can’t miss: Dahi vada