For ethical reasons then I have avoided writing about Masala Dosa run by my good friend Amit Raz. I have had more free meals here than I can count (I’ve also paid for more than I can remember). The place has now survived for five years and remains popular, so it seems acceptable, after full disclosure, to give a personal take.
When Raz, of Israeli origin, said he was going to give up teaching art and open an Indian restaurant, I told him, frankly, he was mad.
Starting a new business in South Africa is not for the faint hearted. The paper work isn’t more onerous than elsewhere, but the bureaucracy asking for it is. Ticking ever new boxes for government is wastefully time consuming. Our banking system is punitive on small enterprises, and the monopoly capital structure of our economy stifling. Developmental support in the form of information, advice and expertise is pathetic. The result is unsurprising; according to the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor and recent research conducted by Fort Hare University: we have about the worst failure rate for new businesses in the world (out of the 80 countries surveyed).
Small business is risky enough, but a restaurant . . . ! Besides our dreary economy, restaurants are an awful trade. For starters, you’re only as good as your last meal. Returning the goods is not a desirable option. Margins are thin and overheads rocketing (food prices are way ahead of inflation), and customers are fickle – always out to try the next new place. And the next new place usually opens with unrealistically low prices in an attempt to get market penetration. When they re-price realistically (after months of cut-throat pricing), customers are off to the next chump.
You have to be either a food nut, nutty or unable to do anything else. Raz is the first of these, a real foodie with a nose as sharp as a Persian cat’s.
It has however been a steep learning curve. He opened a second Masala Dosa in Sea Point and that failed after two years. But the original, in Long Street, is thriving. It has built an eclectic following, ranging from an artsy crowd to the advocates from the nearby courts; also tourists. Many of the Indian tourists are quite traditional, with granny in a sari and running shoes, waiting patiently until the patriarch of the family has sampled a dosa before deciding if it is good enough to order for the whole family.
The décor is unlike any other Indian eatery in the city; it’s modern, funky, with fake Bollywood posters (once the menu), two giant puppets, and on the washroom roof an upside down cow. Raz and I however cannot agree on music or lighting policy.
When he first opened, nobody else in Cape Town was serving dosa – a south Indian staple street food. Since then Bukhara added dosa (with spinach, R79) to their menu and the Eastern Food Bazaar has a dosa stall.
Dosa is a sort of thin pancake, but made entirely from rice and lentils. So it’s gluten and fat free and nutritious.
With his crazy idea to open a restaurant, Raz, all of 27 years old, secured a premises on Long Street and headed off to Udipi, home of the dosa, to research, train himself in dosa making, and bring back equipment.
When he returned he discovered to his horror that what worked in India didn’t work here. I remember the opening night panic well – everything but dosa was on the menu.
He has subsequently got it right. Raz serves his dosas with various fillers: potatoes sautéed in onions with curry leaves and mustard seeds (R42); channa (chickpeas) or mixed beans in a rich gravy; chicken fillets and butternut with aromatic spices and coconut cream; or lamb cubes in a tomato gravy. All dishes at Masala Dosa are spicy but mild.
The dosa is accompanied by sambar – a vegetable and lentil broth. Extras include chutneys: chili, coriander (my favourite) or tomato. Chutney means sauce in India, and is very different from our peach blatjang.
Clients are encouraged to eat with their hands, but there are napkins and cutlery on every table.
Raz’s latest adventure on the menu is a marvelous six course meal of surprise dishes for R100. Booking is essential.
Masala Dosa, 167 Long Street, Cape Town, 8001. Tel: 021 424 6772.
This article first appeared in the Mail & Guardian 19 August 2011.