When Vimala Rajendran opened her first restaurant last month, she started with a loyal fan base that would be the envy of established chefs.
Rajendran has hosted weekly open-to-all community dinners in her Chapel Hill home since the mid-'90s, asking only for donations to cover the cost of the food or to help a worthy cause. Over the years, the number of people impressed by her generous spirit - not to mention her tandoori chicken and cardamom brownies - has grown substantially.
Many of those fans - or friends, as Rajendran calls virtually everyone she meets - were among the first customers when she opened Vimala's Curryblossom Café (431 W. Franklin St., Chapel Hill; 929-3833; www.curryblossom.com ) last month. Once word gets out about the food, her circle of friends will no doubt grow larger.
The bulk of the offering consists of the dishes Rajendran learned to cook growing up in India, tempered with a strong commitment to local produce and natural ingredients. Her famous tandoori chicken gets its color not from the usual red food coloring but from beet powder, and her vegetable samosas are made with organic flour from Lindley Mills.
Pulled pork barbecue, one of a handful of dishes representing the cuisine of her adopted home, is made with Cane Creek Farm pork and served with plantain fritters and homemade dill pickles.
Chances are, the cucumbers for those pickles were grown on a nearby farm. Over the years, Rajendran has established strong ties with local farmers who - not surprisingly, given that she often supplements her payments for produce with dishes she has cooked using their crops - also count themselves among her many friends.
Taste of Africa
Meanwhile in Morrisville, Mame Hughes - another female chef whose exotic offering has found a devoted local following - has reopened Mawa's Taste of Africa (152 Morrisville Square Way; 321-8360; www.mawa-nc.com/Mawa-s-Taste-of-Africaincase.html ) in Morrisville Square, just a few doors down from its former location. This time around, Hughes ventures still further beyond the cuisines of her native Senegal and nearby West African countries to include Ethiopian fare and specialty pizzas with toppings ranging from grilled lamb to seafood piri piri.