The South always rises again. Sometimes this is a threat, but in the case of Indian food in Portland it's very good news. For a long time, Chennai Masala in Hillsboro was the only place Portlanders ever went to get South-Indian dosas, wafer-thin lentil-and rice crepes rolled up and stuffed with meat or potatoes or both. But Chennai has suffered a long, sad slide in the past year or two, and Killingsworth spot Tiffin Asha's hot non-traditional takes haven't really filled in the gaps.
Thank God for Dil Se, a new Indian spot in the strange church-filled blocks of Southwest Portland near the art museum. The name means "from the heart," and in at least one case it shows: The South-India-born husband and wife team Ramesh Rajendran and Shamla Puthuparambil have made by far my favorite dosa I've had all year. Maybe it shouldn't be surprising, given that Rajendran was a chef at Chennai Masala a decade or so back.
At a recent brunch, Dil Se served up the traditional breakfast treat of the South-Indian state of Kerala, a tingling kadala curry thick with little kala-chana chickpeas, fresh curry leaves and deep, fresh coriander and fennel. But that curry was just the dipper for a gigantic, just-at-the-edge-of-crisp dosa ($11) with a razor edge of ferment in its rice and lentil dough, wrapped around the sincerest of Indian comforts: a wealth of mashed potatoes and onions blanketed with fresh-ground, earthy garam masala spice. The plate was both a riot of layered flavor and a warm luxury—curry as aromatherapy.
That weekend brunch is sadly on hiatus until November, and so is that kadala curry dosa. But get any dosa with masala filling and you'll be equally transported, especially the style made famous in the southwestern city of Mysore ($11.50) that once presided over its own separate kingdom. In that dosa, the masala-gunpowder potatoes are bolstered by a hearty lentil stew, doubling down on comfort like a blanket over a snuggie.
Another South Indian mainstay on the menu is a brightly and complexly spice-crusted Chicken 65 ($9), an appetizer of deep-fried chicken nuggets served everywhere in India's southern states; the name is rumored to come from its placement on a 1960s restaurant menu in Tamil Nadu. The Gobi Manchurian ($8) was a wild-spiced, thick-sauced crispy cauliflower dish that tasted beautifully like Chinese sweet-and-sour with an herbal undertow, influenced by Chinese immigrants living in Kolkata. A lentil-doughnut vada was served up with some of the cleanest, purest spiced sambar I've had in Portland. The fresh-baked naan is some of my favorite Indian bread in town.
But in its strange hotel lobby of a space, Dil Se is also very far from a perfect restaurant. A Chennai-style curry usually known for fire arrived without much heat even though we'd asked for "Indian-level spice." A gutti vankaya curry with roasted whole eggplants—a mild peanut and coconut specialty from India's southeast coast—also fell flat. And the meat dosas didn't attain the heights of the masala ones, slipping kibbled keema or sparse tikka chicken out the back edge of their folds. And though Puthuparambil is a warm and amiable host if you're lucky enough to have her at your table, service on a recent lunchtime visit slipped from awkward to actually maddening: a tragicomedy of long waits, dropped and swapped orders, missing plates and necessary silverware that inexplicably disappeared and was not replaced.
But all is forgiven while eating the restaurant's Goan-style vindaloo, better even than the accomplished version at Bollywood Theater. Far too many local Indian spots drown their curries in ghee, leading to a sort of bland interchangeability. But Dil Se's pops with bright spice and heat. It's an explosion of chili, vinegar and earthy flavors that washes across the palate like a tropical storm: first fireworks, and then the warm and soothing aftermath.
GO: 1201 SW Jefferson St., 503-804-5619, dilsepdx.com. 11:30 am-2:30 pm and 5:30-9 pm Tuesday-Sunday.