Serving delectably pungent south Indian dishes -- Nellore fish curry, mutter paneer, chicken biryani -- in a former industrial neighborhood
DINE The boomlet in south Indian cuisine that began a few years ago with the opening of Dosa has now given us Ruchi — and meanwhile Dosa itself is on the march, having toted its dosas from the Mission uphill to Pacific Heights. Ruchi, like Dosa, offers dosas — pan-fried disks made from rice and lentils — but the two restaurants' dosa styles are quite dissimilar, about which more presently.
Ruchi opened about six months ago on a stretch of Third Street in SoMa that, like so many stretches of so many streets in SoMa, is flooded with speeding traffic. The automotive torrent is certainly a hazard and almost certainly a disadvantage; (the original) Dosa, by contrast, occupies the old Val 21 space at Valencia and 21st Streets, with tons of pedestrians and a big public parking garage around the corner.
But Ruchi's location does have its advantages. What was once an industrial neighborhood, largely empty at night, is increasingly residential, with new housing developments popping up right and left. There is even — almost — a quaint village feel to Ruchi's block of Third. Across the way is a nice Italian restaurant, La Briciola, and if you were to wave at its patrons, it might be a little like waving at your fellow villagers across a placid creek, once a mere trickle through your settlement, that abruptly somehow became a whitewater. Still, they could see you and they might wave back.
Inside, Ruchi is a tasteful, muted modern, in earth tones. Just past the door is a length of slatted fence that looks like something to keep Spot the dog penned up in the kitchen instead of letting him run around peeing on every rug in the house. On the one hand the design is a little generic, but on the other it stands patiently in the background while the food steps up to be noticed. Our server one evening described south Indian cooking to us as "aromatic," which for me helped explain the wonderful, pungent presence of fresh ginger in so many of the dishes.
Ginger, when combined with garlic and scallions, is strongly redolent of the wok cuisines, and whether or not Ruchi's greens pullakoora ($8), a spicy spinach dish, was cooked in a wok, it had the sharp freshness of stir-fried vegetables you might find in a Chinese or Vietnamese restaurant.
The utappam dosa ($8), a house favorite according to the menu, surely hadn't been cooked in a wok, but it did carry a strong charge of ginger, along with scallion and green chili. If you are used to Dosa's dosas — thin, crisp, and folded in half — then you might find Ruchi's version, which resembles a slightly spongy pizza scattered with toppings, unexpected. We were told to cut it up like a pizza, and we did, satisfyingly.
South Indian cooking might indeed be aromatic rather than spicy, but Ruchi's menu doesn't lack for spicy items. The mirchi bajji ($5), in particular — serrano peppers coated in chickpea batter and fried to look like little corn dogs — is as blazing a dish as I've ever had. Although I like spicy food, I could only eat two before the heat, building slowly but inexorably, forced me to pull off the road with steam billowing from under the hood.
Chili overheating, like influenza, is an affliction that just has to play itself out, and there isn't much you can do except be patient. Sips of water and beer offered moments of respite, but I had higher hopes for the yogurt sauce surrounding the lentil patties in a dish called dahi vada ($6), until we recognized that there was chili heat lurking in the apparently cool, creamy, wintry yogurt. When the water gushing from your fire hose turns out to be gasoline, you experience a setback.
Kebabs of chicken tikka ($9) — boneless cubes of a rather orange hue, like tandoori chicken — were expertly seasoned and wonderfully plump and tender. But a kachoomar salad ($5), though a colorful jumble of diced onions, cucumber, tomatoes, and cilantro, was a little too salty despite the advertised (and presumably acidic) lemon vinaigrette. The saltiness came from what seemed to me like fish sauce — another hint of southeast Asia.
And, for the second week in a row, a winning dessert makes an improbable appearance. I've had plenty of kulfi (a kind of ice cream) before and never been particularly wowed. But Ruchi's pistachio version ($5), though possibly the least colorful item on the menu (it looked like a bit of ice floe), gave intense pleasure both as flavor and texture, the latter a fudgy denseness with the faintest hint of granularity. Housemade, too; accept no substitute.
Lunch: Mon.–Sat., 11:30 a.m.–2:30 p.m.
Dinner: Mon.–Sat., 5–9 p.m.
474 Third St., SF
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