Everything's Kosher

While last year saw the opening of several new downtown dining and drinking establishments -- some of which cost their owners and investors a cool million, and then some, before the first cosmopolitan was even poured -- no new ventures on a similarly Texan scale have been announced. The latest notice to drop through our mail slot concerns the opening of a fifth location for the revitalized Krispy Kreme doughnuts chain, a purveyor of a quintessentially American pastry with no thematic ties to the lives of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald or Maxine Mesinger. The new location, at 930 Main Street, is even scheduled to open on the holiday with the most solidly proletarian of associations: May 1.

Where will the next hot eatery district materialize? Don't discount Sugar Land, an area with plenty of million-dollar houses and a dearth of restaurants. Not that we would go there ourselves...

Still, the protean Houston restaurant scene is not exactly moribund. New forms of fusion cuisine are seemingly being born right under our wobbly triple chins. Udupi Café opened last month [2121 Richmond Avenue, (713)521-3939]. Billed as an authentic South Indian vegetarian restaurant, the place serves a cuisine inspired by the food of owner Satish Rao's home village of Udupi, near Bangalore, the capital of the landlocked Mysore state. South Indian food differs in a number of ways from the Punjabi cuisine that most Indian restaurants serve in the United States. For one, the coastal cities of South India were the harbors sought by spice traders from the times of the Roman Empire through the Age of Exploration. The region still produces a major portion of the world's supply of black pepper, cardamom, cinnamon and so on. The food is richly fragrant with these ingredients. For another, South India did not become part of the Moslem world as the North did, and its vegetarian cuisine, based in part on Hindu religious principles, is both historically interesting and sufficiently developed to nourish those who live the vegetarian lifestyle.

The classic South Indian food staple is the iddly, a hand-sized cake of rice and lentils (minus the lentils' colored skins), which are steamed and then dipped in a variety of sauces. There are two varieties on the menu, along with fried lentil cakes (pancake-type dishes with toppings or fillings), an assortment of breads, most notably an immense poori (a puffed-up, fried wheat cake rather like a Mexican tortilla) called batura. The beverage menu lists such items as "skimmed buttermilk with herbs and spices," but no beer or wine. Udupi Café does not have a license for alcoholic beverages and has no plans to acquire one, but BYOBers are graciously accommodated.

What makes the Udupi a fusion restaurant is the notice in the window that the restaurant has been inspected by the Houston Kashruth Association, under the supervision of a Rabbi Urkowitz, and found to be a fully accredited kosher dairy restaurant.

Across town, in the old Fifth Ward by the University of Houston, is a fusion food operation that at first causes most people driving down Scott Street to do a double take. The Soul Vegetarian Restaurant South [3520 Scott Street, (713)748-7326] operates out of a neat kitchen on a corner lot of Scott and Alabama. There is an expanse of manicured lawn in front of the kitchen with three round concrete picnic tables under umbrellas for those who choose to lunch in.

A sign reveals the place to be a vegan restaurant, the most uncompromising sort, where no dairy products or eggs are used. How does one prepare soul food without a generous reliance upon salted fatback and plenty of chicken, pork ribs and beef brisket? Can it be done? Judging from a sampling of the barbecued tofu, collard greens and macaroni and cheese, it can be done -- and rather well. The chef and manager of the establishment, Baruch Ben Malaak, explains that the business belongs to the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem, a church that operates similar vegan soul food eateries in other American cities such as Atlanta, Chicago and Washington, D.C. It also has overseas branches in Israel and Ghana. When asked if the food is also kosher, Ben Malaak replied, "It's higher than kosher -- no meat, cheese or eggs, no additives or preservatives."

Followers of the brouhaha that percolated through the Harris County courts before resolving into the regrettable closing of Cafe Noche (see "Buenas Noches," January 11) may be pleased to note that in the next few weeks, the favorite haunt of local journalists and politicians, symbiotic life forms, will reopen. Details are still being worked out as new coats of paint dry, but the place will probably be renamed Cocina del Noche and will feature a Southwestern -- rather than Tex-Mex -- menu developed by River Cafe [3615 Montrose, (713)529-0088] chef Luna Alazar, who will be moving up the street.

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