A Dose of Dosai

I am not used to being surprised in Indian restaurants. After all, as a native of Bangladesh, I have a pretty good familiarity with what the subcontinent has to offer in the way of food. But surprised I was on my first visit to Madras Pavilion, a new Indian restaurant that's recently tucked itself into a small strip center on Kirby near Richmond.

It's courageous enough for any Indian dining establishment to open up in Houston, a city that boasts more than its fair share of South Asian cafes. And it's even more courageous to open up within a stone's throw of the Khyber Grill, which Mickey Kapoor has molded into one of the better known Indian eateries around. I suspect, though, that Madras Pavilion won't have much trouble carving out its own unique niche. Unlike the Khyber Grill, and a large number of the city's other Indian places, Madras Pavilion pays little attention to the cuisine of India's northern regions; its focus is on what's available in southern India -- in particular the South Indian specialty of dosai (often spelled by those in northern India as dosa), a crepelike dish made from lentil or rice flour.

It was a dosai that surprised me. Actually, surprised is an understatement; I was flabbergasted. It was my first visit to Madras Pavilion and I was barely seated when a waiter whizzed by carrying a tray loaded with the largest dosai I'd ever seen. It spanned almost three feet in length and nearly half that in width. All eyes turned to behold the glutton who'd ordered it. She cringed at the sight of her arriving order, as taken aback as everyone else. Had a panel opened in the floor, I suspect she would have been happy to disappear through it.

I also suspect that once she tasted the dosai, any urge to flee would have subsided. The delicacy of the dish belies its size; the appeal of a dosai lies in its wonderful tendency to melt in the mouth, almost like cotton candy. Needless to say, this same quality makes it possible to devour huge quantities of these fluffy crepes. Traditionally, a dosai is eaten with the fingertips of the right hand; a piece is torn off, dipped in sambar gravy and then used to scoop up a tiny portion of chutney or pickle.

Of course, anyone who's eaten along Hillcroft has run across dosai before. But it's been a while since I've seen a selection to match the one at Madras Pavilion. Clearly, it's a haven for this specialty -- which is exactly what Alpa Shah had in mind back in Chicago when she suggested the idea of opening a restaurant to her engineer-turned-entrepreneur husband, Mahesh. They approached Rajan Radhakrishan, who was then the manager at the Udapi Palace, a South Indian restaurant in Chicago. Having spent seven years of service in the restaurant business in the United States alone, and several more working at a hotel in Madras, India, Radhakrishan felt ready to go out on his own.

A little checking around convinced the trio that Houston, with the fourth largest Indian community in the U.S., was the place to go. A series of weekend trips to supervise construction followed, and then late last year the Madras Pavilion opened for business, with Radhakrishan supervising the kitchen. The credit for the ambiance, though, goes to Alpa Shah, who was in charge of the furnishing and decoration.

Indeed, the decor is attractive. The rosy glow of light from the Tiffany ceiling lamps, and the reflection of shiny brass and pink marble, is particularly pleasing. A raised dais by the window in the corner with its arrangement of Indian musical instruments adds an evocative touch. "Some day," Radhakrishan says wistfully, "we will find a sitarist to entertain our guests." A perfect venue to hold a cozy Indian musical soiree some evening, I think to myself, missing the rich cultural life of the subcontinent.

But if the entertainment is, for the moment, lacking, the food is not. With a group of friends, I went down the list of 12 different dosai, pointing and choosing. We started with the paper dosai, which is plain, without a filling. Thin, crispy brown and yet fluffy, this dosai is served with sambar, a mild sauce made with lentils and vegetables. Generally, homemade dosai are somewhat more doughy; this had a thinner, lighter and smoother texture, one almost paperlike -- hence the name. (The giant dosai that made my jaw drop is the family-size version of this.)

The paper dosai comes with an array of relish bowls containing a variety of chutneys and Indian pickles. Intrigued by its exotic appearance, I helped myself to the pistachio-colored, sweet coconut chutney. Its green hue, I found to my delight, is due to green chiles, which leave a sharp, spicy aftertaste. It enhanced and complemented the rather bland taste of the sambar. Another delicious condiment was the sweet and spicy ginger chutney. I was less taken by the South Indian-style green lime hot pickle, which I mistook for mango pickle. Its strong flavor came as a shock. This is an acquired taste; you either love it or hate it. Love it I didn't.

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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