The friendly service comes with first-rate food

CorrespondentFebruary 11, 2011 

  • 431 W. Franklin St., Chapel Hill


    Cuisine: Indian

    Rating: 1/2

    Prices: $-$$

    Atmosphere: cheery and bustling counter-service eatery

    Noise level: moderate

    Service: welcoming

    Recommended: plantain fritters, pakoras, samosa chole chaat, vegetarian and meat thalis, specials

    Open: Lunch and dinner Tuesday-Saturday.

    Reservations: not accepted

    Other: beer and wine; accommodates children; excellent vegetarian selection; patio

    The N&O's critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: Extraordinary Excellent. Above average. Average. Fair.

    The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $16. $$$ Entrees $17 to $25. $$$$ Entrees more than $25.

A sprig of curry leaves, an exotically fragrant souvenir of my most recent visit to Vimala's Curryblossom Café, sits on my desk as I write this review. The leaves are curled and dry, but they were fresh when Vimala Rajendran, the restaurant's owner, gave them to my wife and me. She had noticed my pointing out curry leaves in a dish we were enjoying and trying to describe their distinctive flavor. We weren't aware that Rajendran had overheard our conversation until moments later, when she emerged from the kitchen with the fresh-snipped stem in her hand.

That's not the only special treatment my dining companions and I received over the course of two visits. Rajendran also - to cite just two examples - split a soup three ways (including a house-baked roll for each), even though we'd said we didn't mind sharing, and she supplemented our doggie bag with additional food "so you'll have enough for lunch tomorrow."

I know what you're thinking: She knew he was a restaurant critic. I honestly don't think she did, but in this case it really doesn't matter. After you spend a few minutes in this cheery little counter-service eatery, it becomes obvious that Vimala Rajendran and her staff (clearly her generous spirit is infectious) treat everyone like a restaurant critic. I'm sure she'd prefer to think of them as friends, though, and it's abundantly clear from all the first-name greetings (and occasional hugs) that her circle of friends is very large indeed.

Loyal fans

No wonder. Prior to opening Vimala's Curryblossom Café in July, Rajendran had hosted weekly dinners in her Chapel Hill home for some 15 years, welcoming all comers and asking only for donations to cover the cost of the food or help a worthy cause. Not surprisingly, her first restaurant already had a loyal fan base the instant it opened.

But don't let a line at the order counter deter you. Takeout orders are common, and though I was never made to feel rushed, turnover is brisk.

And the rewards are worth the wait. The soup our party of three had the good fortune to order that night was a puree of local spinach and coconut milk, velvety as custard and almost as thick. The accompanying rolls were baked with organic flour from Lindley Mills in Graham. Our doggie bag lagniappe was a more than respectable rendition of Eastern North Carolina-style barbecue, made with Cane Creek Farm pork and served with cornbread, coleslaw, pickled okra and plantain fritters.

The soup was a special, and the barbecue the lone Western entree in an otherwise all-Indian offering. But both embody Rajendran's cooking philosophy. She's a strong advocate of local, naturally grown produce (and, not surprisingly, counts many farmers among her friends). She strives for authenticity but doesn't restrict her repertoire to the regional specialties of her native Mumbai, instead embracing items ranging from northern curry to southern idli to the pork barbecue tribute to her adopted home.

The vegetables in Rajendran's chickpea-battered pakoras change with the seasons (tender globe-shaped Indian eggplant and cauliflower were recently featured), but the scratch-made chutneys that accompany them (a vibrant cilantro-mint and a tamarind chutney sweetened with dates) are a constant. Her tandoori chicken - locally sourced and among the juiciest I've ever had - gets its color not from food coloring but from powdered red beets and annatto.

A beef curry thali features substantial nuggets of grain-fed beef in a rich coconut gravy redolent of star anise and garam masala spices. Joining the curry on the amply laden platter is a rainbow of accompaniments that - again - vary with the season. But you can count on a dal, basmati rice, bhaji (recently, a sautéed medley of green beans and carrots punctuated with curry leaves and black mustard seeds), flatbread and a couple of garnishing condiments.

Check the specials

There's also a vegetable curry thali, one of several vegetarian offerings that account for more than half of the menu. Other meat-free options (some of which can be made vegan or gluten-free on request) include chole (chickpeas simmered with whole spices and tamarind), kofta curry and vegetable samosas.

It pays to check the specials board by the order counter, too, where recent enticements have included roasted butternut squash soup, homemade ras malai and a duck-egg kofta that was as delightful to the eye as to the palate.

Disappointments from the kitchen are few, and some of those may well be chalked up to expectations set by other Indian restaurants. It's possible that mango lassi is authentically served at a temperature approaching lukewarm, for instance, or that some dishes are supposed to be much more subtly seasoned than I've encountered elsewhere. But I do know that cornbread isn't supposed to taste as if someone forgot to add salt to the batter.

Still, Vimala's Curryblossom Café is a most welcome addition to the local dining scene. The food is by and large first-rate. And, regardless of who you are, you can count on being treated like a restaurant critic - or, better yet, like a friend.

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