Vegetarian Phoenixes

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

Tanpopo Noodle Shop
308 Prince St., St. Paul

Udupi Café
4920 Central Ave. NE, Columbia Heights

It was a dark and shrieking night. The air in the room was as smoky as a good slab of Irish bacon and not dissimilar to breathe. I had staked out a far corner as a likely place to nurse something cold with bourbon and instead ended up playing nursemaid to something hot with the fire of newborn vegetarianism--and did I know that eating meat causes materialism, militarism, and madness? Heavens no! Really? I turned, and ruined a perfectly darling set of heels in an attempt to chisel an escape tunnel through the nearest cinderblock.

And did I know that when he went to his family reunion last summer he found nothing meat-free to eat except for pie and watermelon, and people wonder why his elderly relatives are dying! Heavens! Using weatherproof flags approved by the Coast Guard, I attempted to signal passing ships. I set off flares and whipped my wetted jacket over my head to use as a flotation device.

And did I know that the only restaurants that served foods palatable to vegetarians were exceedingly expensive, and also quite dull?

Well, stop right there, Sonny. What about Udupi? He'd never heard of it. What about Tanpopo? Again, nothing. Preposterous! Being a vegetarian in the Twin Cities and not having heard of Tanpopo or Udupi is like being a gardener and not having heard of water.

And frankly, being a ravening carnivore and forgetting to visit Tanpopo and Udupi is shutting yourself off to some of the keener culinary pleasures in town. Tanpopo offers more simplicity and grace in its dining room than you'll find in every dining room in Uptown put together. And more inventive cooking comes out of Udupi's kitchen in a night than comes out of most chefs' repertoires in a lifetime.

Tanpopo, though--what a sweetie pie. If you haven't visited the place since they lost their old lease and relocated to Lowertown, drop everything and go now. It has to be the best budget restaurant in Minnesota. The restaurant space itself is elegant as a single leaf on the snow: sky-high loft ceilings, tree-tall white walls, and tables so nicely spaced apart that you have as much breathing room as you'd have in a park. The food is fittingly simple and elegant. The agedashi tofu, for instance, is one of the most balanced dishes in the state. Order it as an appetizer ($3.50) and you get half a dozen cubes of battered tofu, fried until the outside is crisp and textured, but not chewy, served in a bowl of intense broth in which a few strands of green onion are submerged, the whole thing topped with bonito flakes that shimmer and dance in the broth's steam like so many strands of seaweed seen undersea. Taste it and the various notes--mild and sweet from the tofu, rich and oceanic from the broth, green and herbal from the onions, bright and mineral from the bonito--all compliment one another, as do the various textures, including creamy tofu and leathery bonito. This dish is an exquisite example of how opposing forces can create a wholeness, not a dissonance.

Truly though, nearly everything on the menu is just as pleasant. The restaurant specializes in two sorts of dishes, one being noodle soups and the other being home-style meals called teishoku. These are basically the blue-plate special of Japan, in which you get, along with your entrée, soup, salad, rice, and a few little pickles. My favorite is the saba teishoku ($8) in which you get fried slices of mackerel as your entrée, the rich oily fish tamed by salting and exalted by a spritz of fresh lemon juice. A cold tofu teishoku ($8) contrasts cubes of firm tofu with a sweet and nutty sesame dressing and chopped scallions. All those fresh flavors just make you yearn for hot summer days.

However, until then you can content yourself with giant bowls of hot noodles. Lately I'd say my favorite soba is the vegetable tempura soba ($8) in which loose patties of tempura-fried onion, carrot, and scallion sit on top of irony buckwheat noodles. Imagine having sweet fried onion rings with your pumpernickel bread; it's that classic combination of nutty-sweet with nutty-deep. For udon, I'm crazy about the wild mushroom udon ($7.50), in which big, slithery, gorgeous udon noodles nuzzle against robust quarters of spicy mushroom, slices of sweet omelet, and tender pockets of blanched spinach. Does that sound vegetarian-friendly to you? It sounds vegetarian-friendly to me, even if it is made with traditional fish-based broth.

If you eat fish, nearly the whole menu at Tanpopo is your playground. If not, you can have any of the noodle soups made with vegetarian mushroom broth for an extra dollar. The restaurant also offers a sake, beer, and wine list now, making it a perfect date destination. While a cold sake ($4.50) and a Japanese beer would seem to be the perfect pair to the menu here, I tried a glass of the restaurant's lone red wine, a deep and raisiny country wine by Nadaria made from the Sicilian grape Nero d'Avola ($5.50 a glass, $21 a bottle), and was impressed with how well it stood up to the salty soy notes of Japanese cooking, and by how nicely the acid perked up the food. I particularly recommend it with the wild mushroom udon or saba teishoku. Is there a more lovely, soothing, and restorative $8 meal in the state? No. Don't make me get out my signal flags to convince you.  

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.

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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