Sri: In India, a polite form of address, roughly equivalent to “Mr.” or “Ms.;” also, an honorific title used as a term of veneration for deities, often translated as “holy.”
Meenakshi: Hindu deity worshiped mainly in southern India.
Bhavan: A casual eating establishment.
Thus begins the intermediate course of study for those of us whose mastery of southern Indian culture hasn’t yet gotten much beyond the introductory level of sambar and dosa. While the Triangle’s burgeoning Indian scene has provided many of us an excellent introduction to the subcontinent’s regional cuisines, Sri Meenakshi Bhavan – a deceptively unassuming little strip mall eatery that opened last October in Cary – offers an opportunity to build on that foundation.
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As is typical of southern Indian restaurants, the menu is strictly vegetarian. You won’t lack for variety, though, given what may well be the broadest survey of the cuisine in the Triangle. But you will likely come across a number of unfamiliar terms, and it would be a shame to let them stand in the way of taking your exploration of the cuisine to the next level. With that in mind, here’s a sampling – an abridged glossary, you might say – to help you get started.
Karaikudi masala dosa: Like its more famous cousin, Mysore masala dosa, this variation on the rice- and lentil-batter crepe theme is named for its city of origin. It isn’t the potato filling, or even the spice blend, that’s spread on the dosa that distinguishes the Karaikudi version, so much as the accompaniment. In addition to the customary bowl of sambar (a spicy, curry leaf-riddled lentil soup) that accompanies all of the dozen dosa variations here, the Karaikudi version comes with a bonus: a pastel trio of tomato, coconut and peanut chutneys for dipping.
Andhra dosa (extra credit): There’s nothing subtle about this one, which vividly lives up to its “spicy” billing on the menu.
Plantain bhaji: Tired of the same old samosa-pakora appetizer routine? Try this regional riff on the fritter theme, featuring battered planks of plantain served with tamarind and mint-cilantro chutneys for dipping. Or let your eye wander over to the Indo-Chinese section of the menu, where you’ll find a chilli paneer that’s sure to spice up your meal.
Vada: You may have seen these savory fried lentil “donuts” on the menus of other southern Indian restaurants, but probably not offered in as many different ways as here. Choose dahi vada (soaked in yogurt), or medhu vada (served with chutney and sambar), or sambar vada (you guessed it: floating in a bowl of sambar).
Bhel puri: Maybe you’re familiar with this one, too, especially if you’ve eaten in any of the handful of area establishments that offer a selection of the Indian street food snacks called chaat. For those who haven’t, bhel puri – a savory-sweet-tangy-spicy melange of puffed rice, chopped onion, potatoes and tomatoes tossed with tamarind and green chutneys – is perhaps the best known. Granted, it isn’t particularly appealing to look at, but rest assured, there’s a reason it’s so popular. It may even inspire you to do more in-depth research on the subject of chaat, in which case the combo platter offers a crash course suitable for group study.
Paneer kothu paratha: A Tamil dish featuring whole wheat flatbread torn into pieces (kothu paratha, sometimes spelled parotta), cooked with fresh cheese (paneer), curry leaves, cilantro and fragrant spices. Another one that tastes better than it looks.
Bisi bela bath: Literally, “hot lentil sour rice,” a description that doesn’t do justice to this complex stew of rice and lentils in a brassy sauce punctuated with black mustard seeds. You’ll find it under the “Variety Rices” heading, along with the likes of lemon rice and vegetable biryani.
Gutti vankaya (saving my favorite for last): Whole baby Indian eggplants, whose buttery flesh is sweeter than the common American variety, simmered in an Andhra-style curry spangled with toasted red chiles and curry leaves.
Service is friendly and well-meaning, though a language barrier sometimes causes minor confusion. Fortunately, a menu with ample descriptions in English usually comes to the rescue.
The decor is tidy but spare, with highlights including inspirational posters (“Change,” “Relax”) and a couple of TV screens alternating between Bollywood and slides of the restaurant’s menu. In the middle of the room, a buffet offers the option to delve into the cuisine at your own pace for $7.99 at lunchtime, $9.99 on weekends.
Regardless of whether you choose to pursue this independent study route or use the menu as your syllabus, one thing is sure: Unlike many intermediate classes, the one offered by Sri Meenakshi Bhavan is anything but boring.
740-E. East Chatham St., Cary
Cuisine: Indian, vegetarian
Atmosphere: tidy but spare
Noise level: low to moderate
Service: well-meaning, easily overwhelmed
Recommended: plantain bhaji, chilli paneer, bisi bela bath, gutti vankaya, dosa (take your pick)
Open: Lunch and dinner daily.
Other: no alcohol; accommodates children; excellent vegetarian selection; parking in lot.
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.