Simple freshness from India

Restaurant CriticFebruary 21, 2003 

CARY--Just a couple of years ago, going out for Indian food in the Triangle meant the familiar curries and tandoori dishes of northern India. But time marches -- or rather, in these parts, gallops -- on. Now our options span the subcontinent, from the Indianized Chinese fare of Calcutta in the east to the Persian-influenced cuisine of Gujarat in the west. Most dramatic of all has been the rise in the number of southern Indian restaurants, which have been opening at a dizzying clip.

Four of the seven restaurants serving up the fiery flavors and coconut counterpoints of southern India are in Cary, and a fifth is just past the town limits in Morrisville. The oldest of these, at the ripe old age of 17 months, is Woodlands.

And just how does the weathered veteran distinguish itself from all these brash newcomers?

Not with a warmly inviting atmosphere, that's for sure. With little more than a few folk paintings lending color to chalk white walls, the dining room comes off as sterile in the way that sparingly furnished strip mall eateries often do.

And not with a lengthy, something-for-everyone bill of fare, either. The offering is strictly vegetarian, and while it presents a good sampling of southern Indian fare (including 15 variations on the region's most famous dish, the crepelike dosa), it is by no means the area's most exhaustive.

Nor does the menu make any special effort to win over the uninitiated. Uppuma, for instance, is described as "cream of wheat cooked with vegetables and garnished with nuts" -- evoking images of hot breakfast cereal gone tragically awry. And five of the dosa listings, each with a different name, are given the identical description: "thin rice crepes filled with potatoes and onion." You could ask your server to elaborate, but the language barrier makes getting a helpful answer an iffy proposition.

Go ahead and order something anyway. Nearly everything on the menu costs less than $6, so your risk is small. What the heck, throw caution to the wind and order the special uppuma. Your courage will be rewarded with a molded cylinder of toasted semolina, cooked to a pearly pudding consistency and liberally studded with bright green peas, cashews, onions, curry leaves and black mustard seeds.

With that success under your belt, you'll be ready to tackle the mystery of the dosa clones. (But be forewarned: At roughly a half a yard in diameter, one dosa is plenty filling. You may want to spread your sleuthing over multiple visits, or enlist the help of a Dr. Watson or two). You'll learn that the "potatoes and onion" filling is a curry-fragrant mash peppered with black mustard seeds. That the difference between the identically described masala dosa and paper masala dosa is the crepe itself: soft in the former and crisp in the latter. That the word "mysore" in mysore masala dosa signifies the addition of a spicy chutney to the filling. And that the description for paper dosa (without the "masala") is a typo. This one doesn't have a filling at all, but it's excellent for dipping into the salty-sweet coconut chutney and sambar (spicy lentil soup) that accompany all dosa.

Mystery solved, now you're ready to explore further. A good place to start is the assorted appetizer platter, whose highlights include a crisp-crusted vegetable cutlet with a smooth-textured interior faintly redolent of cloves, and the biggest, flakiest-crusted samosas (pyramid-shaped pastries) around.

The platter doesn't include chile pakoras, but they're well worth ordering a la carte if you like spicy foods. After these, you'll never look at jalapeno poppers the same.

The menu offers 10 vegetarian curries, though the one I most wanted to try (bagara baigan, starring roasted whole baby eggplant) wasn't available either time I visited. Baigan bartha, featuring eggplant slices stewed with tomatoes and onions in a mild curry, proved a worthy stand-in. And navrathan curry, a veritable market basket of fresh produce in a creamy, pineapple-sweetened sauce, is satisfying.

Sooner or later, your exploration will take you to lemon rice. I encourage you to make it sooner. Sun-bright, citrus-fragrant and speckled with a confetti of cilantro, curry leaves, black mustard seed and (for a surprising crunch) tiny toasted lentils -- this is addictive.

Like most everything else at Woodlands, it respects the fundamental tenet of a vegetarian culture that prizes freshness and purity of flavor above all. So who cares if it's served on plastic foam plates?

Greg Cox can be reached at ggcox@bellsouth.net.

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