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In the Vedas, it is said that Om is the purest vibration of the universe and that with dedicated repetition, one is sure to attain enlightenment. I sure felt that way after I dined at Om South Indian restaurant in San Rafael. I couldn’t wait to go back. Nestled on the west end of the 4th Street corridor, down the street from Bananas At Large and across from Cain’s Tires, Om offers a full menu of authentic South Indian cuisine, minus banana leaf plates.
Walking indoors, one is struck by the cozy and quiet feel of Om. The noise is minimal, and the floor plan, segmented into several small nooks, creates a feeling of privacy at each table. Gentle Indian ragas play softly in the background, offering understated ambience. A large poster of Mahatma Gandhi graces one wall space, feathered sconces and Indian paintings adorn the others.
We arrived just before the Friday evening dinner rush, and were graciously shown to a lovely table. White tablecloths and candles enhanced the atmosphere of peace and calm. My friend Kate, who is an excellent person to test the vegan mettle of any restaurant, promptly set to work deconstructing the menu into meat and vegetarian. Our waiter seemed to have never heard the word vegan before, though he was sweetly willing to step up to the plate (no pun intended). The kitchen was accommodating and we ended up with several lovely vegan dishes.
We started our meal with kadappa idli—steamed rice cakes in a coconut milk chutney ($6.99). A specialty item from Tanjore in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu, the idli were perfect little sponges for the delicate sauce. The spinach curry ($9.99) was light and fluffy, clearly made from scratch with fresh spinach. I have never tasted such clean and distinctive flavors in an Indian curry before. The kadala curry ($8.99) was a lightly spicy chickpea masala. Loved it. Basmati rice and small organic spring mix salads accompanied the main dishes. And I could not resist getting some dairy, so I got the raita ($2.99), a yogurt sauce with finely diced carrot and cucumber, and poori ($2.00), fluffy fried bread that melted in the mouth and made a perfect scoop for the spinach and chickpeas.
There are lots of great menu offerings for the meat eater and vegetarian (and yes, vegan). Dosas are enormous crepe-like pancakes made from a mix of skinless black gram (a type of mung bean) flour, rice flour and fenugreek seed blended with water and fermented overnight. Filled with a variety of stuffings, dosas make up a meal on their own. Try the masala dosa, with potato, onion and cashew nut filling.
Om also offers uthappam, which are similar to dosas, but are thicker and softer. Try the onion chili uthappam, made with caramelized onions and jalapeno pepper.
For the flesh eaters, I hear the Bellari lamb curry (red onion, tomato, poppy seed, coriander and red chili paste) is outstanding, as is the Cochin prawn sasala made with coconut milk, red onion, tomato and cilantro. Another friend swears the chicken curry is the best he’s ever had anywhere.
Sweets include gulab jamun, always a crowd-pleaser, and kulfi, a grainy homemade ice cream. You’ll also find mango lassi, chai, Mysore coffee and a variety of beer, wines and soft drinks.
The restaurant owners are the Thelvi family of Novato, originally from Tamil Nadu in the south of India. Matriach Thamizselvi (Selvi) Thelvi, is the chef. She’s got a bit of the Ammachi vibe: loving, warm and sweet. And she can cook! The food is fresh, alive and vibrant with unique flavors and textures. It’s unlike any Indian food you have tasted in the Bay area.
Be sure to grab a carryout menu before you leave. Om is a place you’ll want to move up to your top five list of restaurants whether you’re dining in or out. Their menu proclaims, “Quality and taste is our mantra.” Om is mine.