The tan and blistered bread balloon doesn't fit on the plate very well. Bigger than a football, it has a weird, formerly animate quality -- like a blowfish that's been deep-fried in mid-puff. My dining companion and editor, Lauren Kern, a twentysomething vegetarian, pokes through the crust with her finger and lets out a yelp. The steam inside is very hot. She tries again with a fork, and the bubble of crust slowly deflates. There's nothing inside, so when you tear it apart, the crust becomes a flat bread.
The bread zeppelin comes with a savory bowl of chickpea stew, and you eat the beans rolled up in the pieces of crust. Chana batura, as the dish is known, is Lauren's favorite item on the menu here at Udupi Cafe, a southern Indian vegetarian restaurant.
As a devout carnivore, I don't pay much attention to restaurants that don't serve meat. This failing of mine is often noted by the considerable contingent of vegetarians on the Houston Press editorial staff. So I attempted to mollify them by finding some vegetarian food worth recommending. Lauren suggested this restaurant. And she insisted I come here not just for the lunch buffet but also for the more exotic specialties served from the dinner menu.
While we're eating, the large table right behind us fills up with black-clad, much-pierced twentysomethings. I ask Lauren if Gen-Xers find vegetarianism so fashionable because they're all trying to be different in the same way. (And as the words come out of my mouth, I hear my dad talking about my long hair in the 1970s.)
"I think it's because our parents were all trying to cut down on fat and red meat while we were growing up, and we just took it one step further," she says.
You can order low-fat and low-cholesterol food at Udupi. But we didn't. In fact, Lauren warned me that our "assorted appetizer sampler platter" was a medley of fried dough balls. There was a mysore bonda, a lentil dumpling; medhu vada, which is a fried lentil-flour doughnut; a samosa, which is a turnover stuffed with potatoes, peas and coriander; a dense and tasty fried cake of beans called a vegetable cutlet; and some kind of batter-dipped, cardboard-flavored starchy stuff called pakora. These came with mint sauce, tamarind chutney and an all-purpose soup and sauce called sambar.
"I like dipping these in the sambar," Lauren says with a medhu vada in hand. "It's kind of a coffee-and-doughnut thing." She's right. The medhu vada resembles a cake doughnut in appearance, texture and aroma. When you dip it in the sambar, you can re-create that pleasant Dunkin' Donuts soggy, slurpy, falling-apart-in-your-mouth experience. The samosas are also quite good.
I have ordered vegetable uthappam for my entrée. It's advertised as an Indian pancake, and I assume it's also made with lentil flour. The one I got comes with tomato, peas, carrots, onion and chiles. It looks like an unflipped flapjack might if a bunch of vegetables sank into it as it cooked. And it tastes like the boxed variety of potato latkes that some people make for Hanukkah. (I've always preferred the shredded potato kind myself.)
It's funny: I decided to write about Udupi this week because it's open on Christmas and I noticed a placard behind the counter that says the place is kosher. You don't see many kosher Indian restaurants. The fact that they serve an Indian version of latkes is a bonus.
It's become something of a tradition for Jews to eat Chinese food on Christmas Day. "Last year for Christmas we went to a Chinese barbecue restaurant called Din Ho," says Alan Lazarus, the chef and owner of Vespaio restaurant in Austin, and one of my oldest friends. Alan grew up Jewish in Far Rockaway, Queens, and he remembers going to Chinese restaurants during the holiday season with his parents and grandparents.
The problem with this Christmas tradition is that Chinese restaurants aren't kosher. Of course many Jews are flexible about these things. "The kosher laws are suspended the moment a Jew walks in a Chinese restaurant," Alan says. "Lobster, shrimp, anything goes. My grandmother would hog up the pork dishes -- and she'd always insist afterward that she thought it was lamb."
If you're dreaming of a kosher Christmas this year, the vegetarian Indian food at Udupi might be a nice change of pace. They'll serve from the regular menu at dinner, but they're doing a special holiday buffet at lunchtime.
I check out the lunch buffet with Jennifer Mathieu, who is also a vegetarian in her twenties. She's wearing a black T-shirt with a slogan that reads, "Your Favorite Band Sucks." Around her neck is a ball chain of the type I associate with vintage rubber bathtub plugs. Dangling from the chain is a metal screw-type hose clamp.
"Would you eat Christmas dinner here?" I ask her.
"Sure. Look -- they already have their Christmas lights up. They're trying to get into the spirit," she jokes. In fact, I'm pretty sure the little white lights are a permanent part of Udupi's rather strange decor. Ornate crystal chandeliers also hang from the black-painted ceiling, between the exposed a/c ducts. It's an industrial modern/ Grandma's dining room look.
"I would if I were in town with nothing to do," she says. "Besides, there would probably be a lot less arguing here than at my house." I ask Jennifer how Udupi compares to Madras Pavilion, the other well-known southern Indian vegetarian restaurant that also serves a lunch buffet. "Honestly, they're very similar," she says.
Jennifer is a big sambar fan; she dips everything in it. The Indian soup (not to be confused with the server software) is made with lentils, onions, tomato, squash, chiles and lots of seasonings. I dip a limp iddly in mine and it falls apart. Iddly is a bland steamed biscuit of little flavor or interest. I decide to stick with the samosas and doughnuts. The best dish on the lunch buffet is a well-sauced potato and cauliflower dish called aloo gobi, Jennifer decides. I like it too. I give Jennifer a tiny triangle of orange peel coated with mustard.
"What is it?" she asks.
"It's a pickle," I answer. She pops it her mouth, winces and spits it out into a napkin.
"Why did you give me that?" she asks accusingly.
"I like it," I reply. I have developed a taste for the weird Indian condiment called lime pickle. But it's one of those foodstuffs that works pretty well as a practical joke, too. The flavor is intensely sour, like the dried lime in the Persian stew I ate at Garson. They pickle little pieces of orange rind here at Udupi instead of the usual lime peel.
Personally, I think the mustardy pickled orange is the most electrifying flavor in the whole restaurant. The parade of starchy dumplings, breads and lentil pastries is a little too monotonous for me. And I suspect that "sambar" is just a fancy name for zucchini soup. Sorry, y'all. It's pretty good for vegetarian fare, but the cuisine at this kosher Indian restaurant called Udupi wasn't prepared with barbecue hounds like me in mind.
I can, however, recommend it for Christmas dinner -- if you're a Gen X vegetarian with nothing better to do, or a kosher Jew who likes Indian food.
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