Members of Cleveland's large Indian community can relate. Yes, there's plenty of good Indian food in Northeast Ohio -- as long as palak paneer, rogan josh, or tandoori chicken is all you crave. But the national cuisine is so much more diverse than the usual lineup of northern Indian specialties suggests; too bad more southern Indian cooking -- crêpe-like dosa or spicy sambar, and puffed-up bhatura bigger than your head -- seldom finds its way onto our plates.
So hurray for Udupi Café, a delightful South Indian vegetarian/vegan restaurant that opened in Parma Heights in 2003. The name, pronounced OO-doo-pee, is taken from a coastal city in southern India known for its fine cuisine and talented chefs. And its lengthy menu is an exotic departure from the familiar territory of curry, biryani, and naan.
Our Udupi is part of a small group that includes outposts in Columbus, Cincinnati, and Pittsburgh. (A host of other, non-related Udupis are popping up all over the country too.) How big a deal has this been for our Indian friends? Well, according to one expatriate companion, who had been yearning for South Indian fare since he moved here nearly a decade ago, Udupi's arrival was about the best thing to come along since gas-fired tandoors. In fact, he says, he was so excited on his first visit that he ordered nearly every dish on the menu.
"The waiter said to me, 'What are you doing? That's enough food for four people!'" he laughs. "But I had been waiting so long, I just had to have it!"
Apparently, he's not the only one with the jones: Unlike many of the area's Indian restaurants, Udupi is generally packed with natives. In fact, during each of our three visits, we probably could have counted the non-Indians on our fingers and toes -- and still have had a digit or two free to order another round of lassi.
Of course, like many of his fellow Indians, our friend is a vegetarian, so Udupi's meat-free menu is just his cup of chai. But diners of a more carnivorous nature are equally likely to be seduced by the freshly made offerings, with their emphasis on respectfully treated veggies, high-octane chutneys, and a variety of crisp and chewy fried breads that are sturdy and flavorful enough to satisfy even the most ardent meathead.
Consider a starter of sambar vada, two plump, heavy "doughnuts" of ground lentil flour dissolving in a warm sambar bath. Profoundly fragrant, sambar is a highly seasoned lentil soup, piqued with curry leaves, cumin, and red chile and meant for use as a dipping sauce. (Obviously, Indians don't eat soup the way we do.) Ladled over the lentil doughnuts, though, it turned into a thick vegetarian stew, radiating the sort of homey "stick-to-your-ribs" comfort that any good eater -- vegan or carnivore -- can readily appreciate.
Sambar is also delicious as a condiment for dosa, southern India's signature crêpe. We could hardly imagine anything more scrumptious than the butter masala dosa we tried on our first visit, the ultra-thin, ultra-frangible crêpe embracing a buttery blend of onions, peas, and coarsely smashed potatoes seasoned with turmeric, fennel, and mustard seed; pulled or cut into bite-sized pieces and dipped into either the sambar or a heady green coconut chutney, the dosa was diwali for the taste buds.
Of course, that was before we discovered the special rava masala dosa, composed of the same unctuous filling, now cosseted by a chewy, lacy "cream of wheat" pancake flecked with onions and chile peppers. We could only nod our head in agreement (our mouth being far too occupied) when our Indian companion pronounced this one of the menu's most fabulous offerings.
But then again, we had to wonder, did that include the other menu too -- the special weekend edition, filled with even more exotic enticements, like the bite-sized paani puri? A Bombay beach snack, the ephemeral poufs of crisply fried bread arrive at the table filled with a dab of mashed chick peas and potatoes, a dollop of sweet-hot tamarind-date chutney, and a dash of feisty green cilantro chutney. Add a drizzle of fiery tamarind water, and pop the entire puff into your mouth at one time, then lean back in your chair and dig the rush.
While we've been told repeatedly that South Indian cuisine is less fatty and more healthful than the heavier North Indian fare, pav bhaji must be an exception to the rule. Another Bombay tidbit off the weekend menu, the dish includes three halves of what look almost like kaiser rolls, their bottoms thoroughly buttered and grilled until barely crisp, sided by a bowlful of chopped carrot, potato, tomato, cauliflower, and peas -- also cooked in butter -- meant to be ladled onto the buns, sort of like an open-face sandwich. (There's also a pat of butter on the plate, just in case you have an open artery remaining.) A final sprinkling of crisp chopped onion and a squirt of fresh lemon juice, and we had ourselves a rich, riotous medley of flavors that could be the vegetarian's answer to a chili dog!
Back to the everyday menu, there's idli (plump patties of steamed rice and lentil flour that are dull on their own, but just the ticket for soaking up sambar or chutney); uthappam (like chewy, veggie-studded latkes); and chana bhatura and poori bhaji, two "must-try" house specialties built around giant puffy breads, straight out of the fryer and so addictive they should probably be sold in alleys. Chana bhatura pairs a hollow, watermelon-sized loaf with a stew of chickpeas, garnished with thickly sliced onion, a lemon wedge, and a green chile; poori bhaji consists of two slightly smaller, sopaipilla-type breads, this time accompanied by a thick vegetable curry. In each case, the bread can be torn into bite-sized pieces and used to scoop up mouthfuls of the veggies.
Desserts are no less entertaining. Besides Bengali standards like rasmalai (a firm, white dumpling of mild cottage cheese, floating in rosewater-spiked condensed milk) and gulab jamun (tender, deep-fried cake balls in rosewater syrup), there is the sweetly soothing "Madras special" payasam, a sort of brothy rice pudding made with microscopic vermicelli instead of rice and studded with chopped raisins and cashews. More singular still is the float-like falooda, served in a stemmed goblet with a spoon and a straw. A pretty pink layering of raspberry syrup, vermicelli, and condensed milk, topped with a scoop of fragrant but not especially sweet, rose-scented ice cream, it yielded a taste that was exotically floral; as for the peculiar sensation of slurping vermicelli through a straw, though . . . let's just say it's a proclivity we haven't yet acquired.
Not that we're giving up. It's like our friend said, as we worked our way through the menu: "It's cheap, it's authentic, it's delicious, and it's clean." Vegan, vegetarian, or omnivore -- what more could a culinary adventurer possibly want?