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A Dose of Dosai

At Madras Pavilion, a South Indian treat is given its due

I had no problems, though, with the potato and onion filled masala dosai; the butter masala dosai, in which the filling is cooked in butter, was even better. I have to commend the chef for innovation and creativity when it comes to the spring dosai Chinese style. Surely, this delicious rice-flour crepe filled with noodles and vegetables must have joined the dosai family long after the end of the Vedic era.

The king of the dosai, though, was the special rava masala dosai, a fluffy crepe made from cream of wheat and rice flour that has an almost doilylike appearance and a delectably spicy potato and vegetable filling that sent my taste buds into a euphoric high. It's not to be missed.

By this time, so many bowls of condiments had been placed on the table that it had become impossible to keep track of what went with what. But I didn't care; the dosai with fillings were so good by themselves that it wasn't really necessary to eat them with anything else.

Though the dosai are the main reason to visit Madras Pavilion, the rest of the menu is far from shabby. Of particular note is the uthappam, a South Indian specialty that defies definition, but comes closest to what can be described as an Indian pizza. The vegetable uthappam, which has a topping of tomatoes, peas, carrots, chiles and onions, makes a delicious meal. The steamed rice and lentil patties called iddly are also worth a try; like dosai, they're eaten dipped in sambar.

The vegetable curries are prepared, in true southern Indian style, with a subtle seasoning of coriander and turmeric rather than being overwhelmed by stronger spices such as cumin or garam masala. Here, curry leaves reign, not bay leaves. Particularly pleasing curries were the avial, a vegetable stew that's cooked in a coconut milk and yogurt sauce, and the kadai bhindi curry. If you like okra (which I do), you'll relish the kadai bhindi curry. It features the tenderest of this vegetable roasted in a delicious onion and tomato gravy.

A truly unique rice preparation is the tamarind rice. I have eaten tamarind-based sauces and condiments before, but this is the first time that I have tried a rice dish cooked in a hot and sour stock made from the pulp of the tamarind fruit. Seasoned with interesting spices and garnished with cilantro leaves and peanuts, this is simply divine.

Curiously, the desserts are essentially of Pakistani and Bangladeshi origins. About the only exception is pongal, which is listed under the rice section rather than with the sweets. This semisweet dish, a blend of rice and yellow lentils flavored with ghur and coconuts and seasoned with cardamom, was notable. But a sampling of other desserts left me with mixed feelings. The badam halwa, made with ground almonds cooked in honey and butter, was particularly disappointing.

Obviously, desserts are not Madras Pavilion's forte. Neither, for that matter, is meat, which isn't found on the menu. Given how meat-conscious Houston is, it's probably necessary to point out that Madras Pavilion is totally vegetarian. But it's a testimony to how intriguing, and enjoyable, the food is that I suspect most people wouldn't even recognize the lack of meat unless reminded. After all, with dosai so good, what else do you need? That part of the menu alone is enough to make Madras Pavilion a new Houston landmark.

Madras Pavilion, 3910 Kirby Drive, No. 130, 521-2617.

Madras Pavilion: paper dosai, $5.49; masala dosai, $4.99; spring dosai Chinese style, $5.79; special rava masala dosai, $5.79; vegetable uthappam, $5.29; iddly, $2.99; Pavilion special iddlies with sambar, $3.99; pongal, $4.99.

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