Children learn from a young age that they can’t have unlimited amounts of whatever they want. They’re conditioned by statements like “just take one piece of Halloween candy,” or “put that down, you already have a bubble wand.” Eventually, they grow up to politely tolerate vacation policies and receiving just one birthday cake per year.
But there’s a place in Kips Bay where moderation is as extinct as woolly mammoths and Myspace. A place where you can take off your shoes, sit next to a wishing well, and mentally flip off anyone who ever told you, “You don’t need twelve lava lamps, sweetie.” It’s called Vatan, and while you’re here, you can have as many refills of vegetarian Indian food as you want.
This is a Gujarati-style spot where you pay $34 for three vegetarian courses, and unlimited refills. As is popular in Gujarat and other Northern Indian states, each course comes on a big metal thali (platter) with eight to ten different dishes in their own compartments. After you finish your thali, a server will ask if you want more of anything before the next course. It’s essentially an all-you-can-eat buffet where you won’t have to stand up to get seconds, thirds, or fourths of mini samosas and chana masala.
Vatan’s magic goes beyond the never-ending supply of Indian food. The restaurant space is designed like a lifesize diorama of a rural village, complete with murals of boys chasing after little lambs. Every booth has its own thatched roof, a fake banyan tree provides shade in the windowless room, and it’ll take you an embarrassing amount of time to determine if the plastic turtle in the wishing well is, in fact, plastic. At Vatan, you lose all sense of space and time, and excess is king.
You come here for the over-the-top vegetarian experience in a room that could have been a Natural History Museum exhibit in the 1970s - not necessarily for high-quality food. Ultimately, you won’t mind the flavorless chickpeas in garam masala and the fact that the muthia tastes like it could stuff a turkey. The fake turtle in the wishing well and the endless flow of food are more important. So the next time you prohibit a child from eating seven scoops of ice cream before bed, make a note to take them to Vatan someday. They’ll appreciate it.
Of the eight dishes on the plate, our favorites are the yogurt-covered sev puri, the batavada potato dumplings, and the baby samosas (the servers call them that, which makes them taste better). And regardless of how often you eat at Vatan, you’ll always be astonished that this is just the appetizer.
The entrees involve fewer fried things and more stews and soups than the appetizer (and come with a side of rice, more soup, and lentils mixed with rice and vegetables). The sweet rice pudding is the most exciting thing in this round. Dip some paratha and puri into the chutney and then drench it in rice pudding - it’ll be the perfect spicy-sweet bite.
Like any good dessert, the one at Vatan always involves ice cream. You’ll also get a little silver dish of excellent galub jamun, and a delicate little cup of masala chai. The ice cream flavor changes pretty often (we’ve had both mango and cardamon), and the syrupy galub jamun is one of the best things you’ll eat during the entire meal.