Our Gourmet: An evening of Indian surprises

March 13. 2018 11:55PM
Mixed vegetable pakoda atop coconut rice, flanked by several chutneys. 
Ritu's Spice Utsav
484 S. Main St., Manchester; 836-5652; www.ritusspiceutsav.com
Hours: Tuesday-Sunday, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.
Cuisine: Indian vegetarian.
Pricing: Appetizers, $4.95-$5.95; curries, $11.95-$13.95; dosas, $8.95-$13.95.
Scores for Ritu's Spice Utsav
Atmosphere: 17/20
Menu: 17/20
Food: 18/20
Service: 18/20
Value: 19/20
TOTAL: 89/100

The Dining Companion was excited one recent night when a social media post popped up touting a new Manchester restaurant. That it was an Indian restaurant was a plus, but the fact that it touted its vegetarian and vegan fare moved Ritu’s Spice Utsav, which opened in January on Manchester’s West Side, to the top of our must-try list.

Housed in the little strip mall where Woodbury, South Main and Boynton streets meet, Ritu’s Spice Utsav (which means festival or celebration in Hindi) is easy to get to, with parking right out front or to the side of the strip of businesses on South Main. Our Gourmet (OG) and the Dining Companion (DC), visited on a recent Thursday evening, the 8-year-old FussBudget in tow.

When we arrived — a half hour after the restaurant’s website said it opened at 5 p.m. — the dining room, soothingly colored in burnt orange and black, was completely empty. We were seated at a window table near the door, told things would be ready in about 15 minutes, and then left alone — with no drinks, or even menus. It took us a few confused, panicked minutes before we pulled out our phone and discovered on social media we’d walked into the restaurant’s Thursday night Dosa Buffet, which wouldn’t start until 6 p.m.

Sure enough, right at 6 the buffet trays were filled and diners started coming through the door. We’re glad we waited, because it turned into a feast.

While we waited for the buffet to be prepped and filled, the DC asked to order drinks. The Mango Lassi ($3.50) she chose for the FB disappeared as fast as the boy could drink it, the creamy concoction of mango, yogurt and spices disappearing until his straw gurgled at the bottom of the glass. The DC was puzzled by some of the menu’s other choices, which, included Rose ($3.50) and Butter ($2.95) milks and several Masala soda options.

Our server helpfully explained that masala means a mixture of spices, so a Masala Coke ($2.95) is a regular Coke poured over a spice mix that includes cumin, coriander, salt, and pepper as well as others. The DC looked skeptical. “I don’t really like it,” our server said. “How about just a regular Coke?” she offered. The DC accepted. OG stuck with water.

Our server explained the evening’s buffet is a regular weekly event, limited to items from the southern Indian and Tamil side of the menu, with dosa — best described as a sort of crepe made of rice and lentil flours — as the star of the show. Ritu’s menu lists 21 different varieties of dosa, ranging in price from $8.95 to $13.95, depending on the style and filling, which can range from plain, to those with mushroom, or paneer or spicy potato or onion. During our meal, OG and the DC made it through four varieties, including a thin, crispy plain dosa, a thicker version tasting of onion and spices, and another filled with a dollop of potato.

While the dosa were the centerpiece of the meal, they best served as a conduit to the other dishes and condiments: Dipped in a creamy peanut or coconut chutney, a plain dosa was raised to another level. A swish through a puddle of tomato chutney — similar in flavor to the onion chutneys we’ve had other places but pureed here — turned up the heat.

A mild coconut rice, tender grains gently flavored with coconut and spice, provided a counterpoint. We also topped a serving of it with Sambar, a thin, aromatic vegetable stew that was almost souplike.

We learned later, and will try next time, that the idlies — soft, spongy pillows of steamed lentils and rice — should have gone into the Sambar, rather than topped with chutney as we enjoyed them. A mixed vegetable pakoda was deep fried and provided a crispy diversion. Each buffet tray was promptly refilled as happy, hungry diners emptied them.

Medu Vada, a crispy-on-the-outside, fluffy-on-the-inside doughnut-shaped fried offering made of lentils, was a huge hit with the ever-finicky FB, at least until he came upon a single black seed — mustard, perhaps — which gave him an excuse to start asking for another lassi. We were surprised when we couldn’t even interest him in the Semiya Payasam, a sweet dessert dish with undertones of ghee (clarified butter) similar to the rice pudding we’ve had at other Indian restaurants, but featuring vermicelli instead of rice.

When we indicated we were full, our server suggested sitting back and waiting a while to see if we could eat some more, making this all-you-can-eat meal, at $12.99 per person, a delicious dining bargain.

Already wowed once, we’ve got Ritu’s Spice Utsav on our return list. With about 50 vegan dishes on the menu, our Dining Companion has a lot more tastes to try.

Our GourmetManchester

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