Vegetarian Phoenixes

Perennial pleasers Udupi and Tanpopo are even better following their rebirths

Meanwhile, all the way across town, the state's most creative $11 meal is, without debate, the weekend buffet at Udupi. I went there recently and was utterly astonished by the sheer variety and inventiveness of the restaurant's all-vegetarian Indian cooking. I'd never seen Madras style aloo kofta before, but was charmed by the rolled tubes of dosa stuffed with various blanched vegetables, cut into happy little pinwheels and served simmering in a buttery orange chili sauce. They looked like some kind of geometric op-art and tasted light and luscious. The "special rava kitchadi" is another charmer, a baked pan of polenta-like steamed grains and tomatoes enlivened with a whole cupboard's worth of spices, including whole cinnamon sticks, lots of cardamom pods, and handfuls of fresh cilantro--so lively, so tasty.

The weekend buffet at Udupi, served from 11:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m., is mind-boggling these days. I counted nearly 30 items on that Sunday, from almond-stuffed paratha breads bursting with raisins to a cucumber dal as light and frothy as a bowl of whipped cream, but so much brisker. Anyone who's felt in a rut with their cooking would get a thousand ideas from this buffet. On weekdays the menu selection is reduced, but so is the price: $7.99 will get you some 16 options to choose from.

I went back for dinner a week later and had a meal that was equally good, although it was harder to order. If you're not intimately familiar with Indian vegetarian cooking, it's too easy to order dishes that closely replicate each other. One thing I recommend is the chaat papri ($3.99), an appetizer salad of chickpeas, onions, yogurt, and fresh cilantro tossed with a thinly sliced savory cookie. The dish has all the crunch of potato chips, but all the lightness of a cold yogurt soup. Also, the vegetable pakoras ($3.99) are vegetable-filled fritters bursting with subtle spices and irresistible as a savory doughnut must be.

A vegetarian favorite reincarnated: The weekend buffet at Udupi
Kathy Easthagen
A vegetarian favorite reincarnated: The weekend buffet at Udupi

Location Info

Map

Tanpopo Noodle Shop

308 Prince St.
St. Paul, MN 55101

Category: Restaurant > Japanese

Region: St. Paul (Downtown)

I can never get enough of Udupi's paper dosa: Order the paper masala dosai ($6.50) and you get a gigantic paper-thin crepe rolled into a foot-high megaphone, held together by the weight of the delicious potato-onion filling inside. Aside from this megaphone of paper dosa, there is no vegetarian dish in the Twin Cities with more tableside ooh and aah than the restaurant's chana batura ($8.50), a giant fried balloon of bread that arrives at the table as big as a soccer ball and deflates into delicious doughnuts of bread with which to scoop up spoonfuls of the accompanying nicely sour chickpea curry. The final must-order dish at Udupi is the gobi manghuriani ($8.50)--flour-breaded, fried pieces of cauliflower sautéed in a garlic-ginger-chili sauce. Each piece of cauliflower gains a rough, doughy character and soaks up a load of rich sauce. It's akin to a vegetarian version of buffalo wings, as every bite is utterly saturated, rich, and memorable.

Again, the natural pair for these dishes would seem to be a palate-cleansing beer, which the restaurant now offers along with a short wine list. But after such good experiences with dark wines at Tanpopo I decided to try the darkest and jammiest wine the restaurant offers, the Rancho Zabaco Heritage Vines Zinfandel ($6.50 a glass, $17.95 a bottle), and was pleasantly surprised by how nicely the spicy wine went with the spicy foods. The wine had enough weight to stand up to the strongest flavors the restaurant had to dish out, namely the complimentary lemon pickles, but enough finesse to complement lighter options such as the pakoras.

If the last time you went to Udupi it didn't even have a wine list, it's probably time to revisit the place. They moved to this, their current, larger location after the restaurant's first site burned to the ground one terrible winter's night. Even though I liked Udupi when it opened, over the last month I have found everything about the place to be better than it ever was. The food is more surprising, the service more comfortable, the wine and beer list a happy addition. In short, it has mastered every essential point of being a good restaurant: good, interesting food served in a way that makes you feel comfortable at a price you can afford. "Maybe more restaurants should burn down for better dining," quipped my friend on our way out the door.

Burn down or lose their leases, I thought, referencing my recent experiences. Then, imagining the howl of outrage that would fly across the land if I ever let that thought out in public, I quickly immersed my jacket in water and whipped it over my head to use as a flotation device.

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