Taking its name from the griddles used to prepare the specialty crêpe dish dosa, Manish Patel’s Tava is a post-COVID success story. What started as a pop-up later expanded to the (now-defunct) Auction House Market food hall. Then this spring Tava finally landed as a brick-and-mortar on Girod Street, tapping into the returning vitality of the South Market District.
Patel cuts across the grain of more familiar (typically Punjabi) Indian cuisine, with its butter chicken and basmati rice, and instead draws on the dishes of his family’s Gujarati heritage. Using dosa as his expressive base, Patel builds around it with a lighthearted, improvisational approach. “I like to have fun with my cooking,” he said. “I’m creative and I wanted this place to reflect that spirit.”
Housed in a lofty bay in the Paramount building, Tava’s long open kitchen offers cooking capacity the food hall never could, and Patel has been quick to seize on that. The menu has grown up. Flanked by walls bursting with colorful murals, the ambiance complements the vibrancy of the dishes that parade, course after small course, from kitchen to table.
While similar in technique to a traditional French crêpe, dosa’s unique batter takes it in a crispier, more savory direction. The fermented rice and lentil batter “can be a hassle to make at home,” Patel said. “You have to grind it, soak it and ferment it – it is a lot of work for what is in the end a pretty simple batter.” Consequently, most Indians who visit here receive it as they would a dish for a special occasion – a treat.
Vegetarian iterations offer complexity through a panoply of seasoning. The entry-level version serves up masala potatoes, sambar, and coconut chutney portioned out on a plate dominated by the dosa. Mix and match bites at will, augmenting them with additional chutneys. Wagon-wheel puffs of fried Far Far extend the dipping possibilities. By happy coincidence dosa are gluten-free and this, plus the array of vegetarian options, should make Tava a top choice for those who choose not to eat meat. For those that do, try the lamb vindaloo version, which offers up a succulent portion of shredded lamb.
Fun crossover dishes include street corn, which swaps the seasoning of the Mexican staple for the less familiar flavors of Kashmiri chili and cumin, united by buttery ghee. Good old U.S. tater tots serve as the core for a couple of fun mashups including “Tater Chaat,” which uses them in lieu of cubed potatoes. Complexly vegetarian “Dabeli Sliders” represent Patel’s Gujarati heritage while his “65 Wings” – assertively spiced with Kashmiri chili and curry leaves – put an American twist on Indian flavors. “I love wings,” Patel said, “and after all, we are a football city.” This take is also put to good use in his “Chicken 65 Sandwich,” augmented with spicy garlic slaw and pickled cucumber on a sesame bun. This sandwich is one of his best sellers.
The reaction to Patel’s cuisine by the Indian community runs the gamut from confused (“Where is the biryani?!”) to beloved (“This tastes just like home.”) Interestingly, reactions don’t necessarily correlate with age; older diners can be the most embracing. Patel takes heart in this vote of confidence. “If someone tells you it tastes like their grandmother cooked it – I think we are doing a pretty good job.”
Tava Indian Street Food. 611 O’Keefe Ave., Unit 8, South Market District. (504) 766-9612. tavanola.com.
About the Chef
Born and raised in New Orleans, Patel grew up with a passion for cooking with his father, who worked long hours as a chef in some of New Orleans’s top hotels. Initially discouraged from the trade, Patel went to college for architecture and the visual arts, but couldn’t shake the cooking bug. After one dark day when he was fired on his birthday, Patel finally decided cooking was where his heart was and embraced it. Since then he has thrived and in doing so brings to New Orleans a fresh take on the complex cuisines of his heritage.