Over the years I’ve become quite fond of Indian food. I’ve tried all of the restaurants in Buffalo (I think), and a number in other cities. In all that time, I never knew that there was another type of Indian cuisine that I was missing… until yesterday.
After hearing a bit of a buzz about Chennai Express on Pearl Street in Downtown Buffalo, my wife and I decided it was time to do some exploring. I assumed that we were in for a similar Indian food experience that we are already accustomed to in the city, but boy was I wrong. Chennai Express serves up a South Indian flavor that has telltale signs of the more recognizable (at least around here) North Indian cooking, though for the most part it’s a world apart.
To start, one of the items that Chennai Express prides itself on is the dosa, which is essentially a crêpe made with rice and lentil flour. The crepes come in a number of sizes, that range from something that looks like a soft shell taco, to a portion that fills half the table. Inside the crêpe, numerous types of fillings are found, including mushroom with potato, and grilled fish with Indian spices. When our order of two dosas was brought to the table, we were mesmerized by the sight of the bounty that was placed in front of us.
As the traditional Indian music played in the background, we began to pick apart the feast with our hands, tearing off pieces of the mysterious, flat, crispy pancake (traditionally Indian breakfast and street fare) and dipping them into myriad metal bowls filled with chutneys (mint to sweet to spicy) and raita. Our server informed us that there were as many as 30 to 40 various dosas available daily, and 10 different chutneys to choose from. For us, that was music to our ears.
Along with the dosas, we also order a dish of channa saag, which is our usual “go-to”. We wanted to see how the South Indian version translated. What we found was that the preparation seemed to be a bit less oily, and we both agreed that the preparation was somewhat healthier than what we were accustomed to. Yet the flavors and the spice kick were all still there. Had we struck gold on this food excursion? It appeared to be so.
During the meal, our waiter was super accommodating, answering our questions, keeping our waters full, offering up suggestions, and generally making our experience a pleasant one. Per usual, we stopped in for lunch at an off hour, which is typical due to our schedules, so the place was virtually empty except for our table.
Looking around, the decor was sparse, yet not in a bad way. To me, there was an “adobe feel” to the restaurant, with yellowish mud-plaster tones, a couple of wall hangings, and a few dark wood features for some contrast. The dark wood components were all that was left from the former bar that occupied the space. The kitchen had been interestingly constructed half way over the bar. The bar rails on the opposite side of the room managed to tie everything together. Simple table cloths and seat covers lent some softness, and the silver serving bowls added some traditional flare.
For those looking for vegan, vegetarian and gluten free menu items that are both flavorful and filling, I suggest trying this Indian eatery ASAP. Meat eaters will be just as pleased. The only suggestion that we had was that the food could have been a tad hotter (it was warm, not hot), but that is a minor issue compared to the awesome experience that we had. Next visit (could be as soon as this evening), I would like to try one of the mixed rice dishes (biryani), or the uthappam (ingredients mixed right into the crepe batter), or any one of the number of tantalizing-sounding appetizers (see the menu here).
Chennai Express doesn’t look like much from the outside. In fact, the facade of the building is somewhat foreboding (Darth Vader glass). The juxtaposition on the interior does not reflect the street presence at all. I like the atmosphere inside the restaurant, and feel that the understated nature of the decor actually works in its favor, surprisingly. Maybe it’s the color of the walls, or the “clinks” and “clangs” that can be heard coming from the kitchen as the cooks prepare the food (along with plenty of chatter). Whatever it is, I like it and am happy to have such a wonderful and unusual ethnic eatery to visit in downtown Buffalo.