5060 Central Ave. NE, Columbia Heights; (612) 574-1113
Hours: Daily 11:00 a.m.-9:30 p.m.; lunch buffet Monday-Friday 11:00 a.m.-2:30 p.m.
When the paper masala dosai hits the table, I want to suspend time. I want a few moments to gawk at this awesome south Indian dish, which is sort of like a crepe, or a curled Norwegian krummkake, magnified 30 times. The dosai itself is a completely flat circle of bread, about two feet in diameter, furled into a funnel that rises a foot off the table. Inside, like furniture in a dollhouse, sit two little metal cups, and behind them a pile of potatoes and onions--for cute! I just want to gape at this Barbie living room as done by some soft, modern textile master.
But no, I never get my wish. As soon as a dosai alights on the table, blam, people start cracking off bits, smooshing in parts, carving off chunks, devouring the crispy sail and its savory heart. I almost want to protest: Have you people no respect for art? Except I'm always part of the advance guard. You know how it is at some tables. You snooze, you lose.
And the paper masala version isn't even the tastiest dosai Udupi Café, the new vegetarian restaurant in Columbia Heights, offers. Dosai (pronounced DOE-sah) are thin, crepe-like breads, and Udupi (pronounced uh-duh-PAY) serves 14 versions, some delivered soft, some crisp, some small, and some made with whole wheat, lentil flour, or spice. For my money, the best of the lot is the rava masala dosai ($6.50), made with grated onions and chiles. These additions make the pancake thin and loose, which results in a gorgeous lace in the pan, a net of dough that, sizzled in a bit of oil, gets crisp and brown like the edge of hash browns. In the net is captured the same pretty yellow potato-and-onion mixture that fills the paper masala dosai. Try to come with more than two people, so you can justify getting them both.
Other standouts on the menu include the baigan bartha ($7.99), a fire-roasted-eggplant dish that's ubiquitous in Indian restaurants, but fresh and distinct here. Palak paneer ($7.99), that dish of spinach and fresh cheese, is lively with nutmeg and cinnamon. Among the breads, a few--including the several paratha, another type of flatbread ($2.25-$2.99)--can be unappetizingly oily; others, like the beach-ball-like poori ($2.99), are just delicious. The batura ($2.99) was a new one to me: It's a big blanket of a bread, deep-fried till its outer layer is as crisp and chewy as a fried won-ton shell--absolutely addictive.
The same, however, can't be said for the whole Udupi menu. If you don't order carefully from a lineup based on grain and pulse flours and a modest number of vegetables, you may encounter a dulling sameness to the dishes. Vada ($3.25 to $3.95) are quite simply hot, fried lentil-flour doughnuts that absorb the flavor of whatever you put on them; ditto the iddly ($3.25 to $3.95), saucer-shaped patties of steamed cream of wheat, some varied with the addition of rice or lentils. Uthappam ($5.25-$5.95), quarter inch-thick fried pancakes made from a leavened batter of rice flour, chickpea flour, or both, tend to be very bland. They're made to be dipped into sambar, a tasty, slightly sour lentil soup made with vegetables and spiced with mustard, coriander, fenugreek, asafetida, and a bit of chili.
Sambar comes with most of Udupi's dishes. A fresh coconut chutney accompanies nearly everything as well; it's sweet and light, a purée that tastes like it was a whole, fresh coconut very recently. If you order sada dosai ($4.95) or plain paper dosai ($5.75), you'll get the dosai, sambar, and chutney--the bread is the meal.
Udupi is distinctly not a restaurant that tries to make you run up the bill by withholding chutneys, but an order of pachadi is a good investment. The thin, sugary south Indian version of the yogurt dip raita, made with a bit of cucumber and fresh tomato, goes particularly well with curries. A cup of the thick, sweet mango chutney ($1.50) is a nice addition to the table, too, and if you mistakenly order many versions of the same basic dish, its sweet spice can save the day.
What Udupi lacks in dramatic variety it makes up for with comfort: The overall impression isn't one of dullness so much as of a skillful home cook dishing up a familiar repertoire. The modest prices--the average entrée is priced around six dollars--and the mint-and-white breakfast-nook décor also contribute to a welcome-to-our-kitchen feel.
I was initially surprised at how crisply run the café is. I've gotten in and out of there for dinner, with three courses, in 45 minutes, something you never see in a brand-new restaurant with a brand-new staff. But then I talked to Myrappan Nagappan, who opened the restaurant in June, and learned that it's not exactly a brand-new operation--more like a new branch on an established tree.
Nagappan hails from Karnataka, a state in India's southwestern temple district, and he might well be the district's busiest stateside restaurateur: He is connected with Udupi restaurants operating in Pittsburgh, Atlanta, and Maryland, and now-defunct operations in Boston and Chicago. (FYI, Udupi, the city, is the home of several of India's most celebrated Hindu temples. Since it has been a tourist destination for centuries, with the faithful coming on pilgrimages and the curious arriving to observe the faithful, it reportedly has some of the best street and restaurant cuisine on the subcontinent. For people in the know, "Udupi Café" carries connotations as powerful as, say, "Chicago Pizza" or "Brooklyn Deli.")
When Nagappan decided to open a restaurant in the Twin Cities--with absolutely no connection to the place except a friend who works for Dayton Hudson Corp.--he simply scouted out a location, then showed up with seasoned staff, equipment, and ingredients, and threw open his doors. That large, coordinated, imported staff is a true pleasure to behold: Orders are filled with lightning speed, water glasses are paid the sort of careful attention usually reserved for howling babies.
But how will that staff--and the similarly imported personnel at Uptown's new Passage to India--weather its first winter in the Big Icy, when the ten lanes of Central Avenue turn into a Siberia dancing with swirling snow devils? Will the paper dosai soar as high? Will the staff zip as perkily? Will we be lucky like Pittsburgh, which kept its Udupi--or unlucky like Chicago, which lost its? The only advice I have is: Devour your paper dosai with the greatest haste. Life's too short to waste time marveling.
IT'S THE INGREDIENTS, STUPID: Longtime readers know that I often write about local farmers and food producers. What you may not know is that I regularly get flack from local restaurant people who feel those columns are "wasted" when I could be promoting their establishments. Well, finally, someone has articulated why restaurants should care about farmers: "Cuisine is 70 percent ingredients," trumpets chef-superstar Jean-Georges Vongerichten in the August 16 issue of New York magazine. The article, by Peter Kaminsky, details the efforts New York City chefs have made to get small, local farms to grow their food, and the reasons why. David Bouley, another überchef, explains why he invested thousands of dollars to get a Hudson Valley grower to raise potatoes for him: "The point is that ingredients--more often organic ingredients--that are grown locally can maximize their ripening so that they fully develop their flavor potential." Kaminsky notes in the article that 15 of France's 21 three-star Michelin restaurants are located outside Paris, near the farms where the ingredients grow. (Is this why so many of our local great restaurants, like La Belle Vie, Bayport Cookery, and the Harbor View Café, are out in the St. Croix Valley?)
The chef in charge of New York's ultra-fancy-pants Lespinasse puts a fine point on it: "You can have all the technique in the world...but it is only by starting with great ingredients that I can make a dish that explodes." The whole article is available on the magazine's Web site (www.nymag.com/this_week/view.asp?id=2553). Meanwhile, let's all just keep repeating to ourselves: Nasty, desiccated chicken breasts in, nasty, desiccated chicken breasts out...
SPEAKING OF LOCAL INGREDIENTS: How's our local apple crop looking? Will your local apple pies be up to snuff? (If you're making a Washington State apple pie after all this, you're lost. Just spray some air freshener around--voilà, you're in the Boundary Waters!) To the west, Tom Meyher at the St. Boni Orchard in St. Bonifacius says the ripening fruit look to be "as early as last year, though probably not as big as last year." Why? "I don't know--nature decides that one. As a grower it always seems like they won't be as big as you want them. But then, they never really get big enough for me." To the east Cindy Femling, who owns Afton Apple Orchards, says apples in her neighborhood "look great. Everything looks great--there was no major hail or storm damage this year, and apples are about on schedule. We're getting nice size and coloring." Femling reminded me that if you've got pie in mind the later varieties--including Haralson, Regent, and Cortland--hold their shape best. And, she noted, if it was a good year for apples it was less so for pumpkins: The wet spring and hot July meant the crop didn't "set" right, so if you see your perfect jack-o'-lantern, snap it up quick. (Call the orchards for directions and hours. St. Boni Orchard: (612) 472-5752; Afton Apple Orchards: (651) 436-8385.)
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Minneapolis & St. Paul dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.