Indian beatitude

Suprabhath is simple splendor

It doesn't take more than a taste to realize that Indian cuisine is saturated with complexity and inspiration. So saturated that, until recently, many chefs have avoided its volatile mysteries. Michael Romano, executive chef of the Union Square Cafe in New York, says using Indian spices is akin to learning a new language. At first you can only string together simple phrases.

And this is how it must be approached: step by methodical step. There is a seeming endless multiplicity of dishes in Indian cuisine, including exotic variations on pickles, chutneys, salads, and fried foods. And then there is the vast variety of spices--many fiercely intense--such as cardamom, chili, cinnamon, garlic, cloves, saffron, tamarind, turmeric, and cumin, folded and layered within a single creation. Curry powders, the linchpins of Indian cuisine, can incorporate as many as 20 herbs, spices, and seeds.

Even serving Indian food, much of it tied to ceremonies and celebrations, can be a beautifully complex matter. Traditional Indian meals are served on a thali, a large silver or brass salver about 2 inches deep upon which a set of serving bowls or katoris is placed. As few as three or as many as eight serving dishes--holding chutneys, salads, or sauces--are arranged in the thali.

This is the type of meal service you'll discover at Suprabhath, a Dallas offshoot of a 2-year-old restaurant in Houston featuring South Indian vegetarian cuisine. Instead of silver or brass thalis, Suprabhath serves its meals in stainless steel trays and dishes. Even the marsala tea, a blend of tea, sugar, milk, and a little cardamom, is served in a stainless steel cup and saucer, a service detail that can be torturous on the fingertips.

Interestingly, the mango shake, a deliciously refreshing blend of milk, mango pulp, sugar, and ice, is served in a Styrofoam cup.

Yet Suprabhath's menu is loaded with authentically prepared items, including dosai (thin pancakes), breads, and rice dishes. And everything, from the salads and chutneys to the fried pastries, is fresh and articulately assembled.

The only deviation from this standard was the saffron rice with peas, carrots, and mushrooms. Offered on the lunch buffet, this dish was little more than a pasty wad.

Yet everything else was a pummeling of beatitudes. The vegetable pakora sampler--a selection of battered and deep-fried spinach, onion, eggplant, green pepper, and potato--was clean and crisp without a hint of grease. A modest spice heat on the finish complemented the vegetables rather than masked them, while sides of sambar (a sauce with tamarind and tomato) and coconut chutney for dipping amplified the flavors.

Madras thali is a meal served on the traditional large stainless steel platter carpeted with a banana leaf. The centerpiece of the meal features a choice of dosai, idly (steamed rice cakes), and vadai (deep-fried spicy lentil patty) surrounded by numerous stainless steel dishes holding chutneys, sauces, and vegetables. The dosai, a light crepe, was crisp and firm without sponginess. It was stuffed with a filling of potato, onion, turmeric, and ginger--moist innards with a subtle tang and liveliness.

A side of rice was slightly overcooked and dry. But a pastry, described as an Indian nacho, was light, crunchy, and coated with a little oil. The ring of small dishes--all fresh and vibrant--included lentils with onion and tomato; a tangy tamarind sauce; squash with coconut, potato, and curry; eggplant with peas, corn, and spices; cauliflower, peas, and potato; shredded carrot and green beans; coconut chutney; a spicy tamarind sauce; and a dessert with egg and cashew.

Masala dosai with vadai and idly came with a huge 2-foot crepe filled with a potato mixture. The long pancake shared thali space with a moist, fluffy, and slightly tangy fermented rice dumpling as well as a light, delicately crisp lentil donut--like an elegantly savory hush puppy.

Other highly successful concoctions included a delicately sweet dish consisting of shredded carrot, raisins, and brown sugar; a sharp, lively salad of pickled lemon with poppy seeds laced with seasonings that sparked the tang with subtle spice heat; and a warm, nutty eggplant salad with peas and poppy seeds.

Suprabhath is tucked in a modest Campbell Shopping Plaza strip slot in Richardson. The techy deco decor includes tables laminated with a thick black lacquer and gold, ivory, and black lacquer chairs over a black and white checkerboard linoleum tile floor. The space is piped with music heavily peppered with tabla and sitar.

In looking over the receipts from my meals at Suprabhath, it's amazing that the most expensive visit was under $30 for three. It's hard to come up with a more provocative dining experience, even at four times the price.

While the compellingly exotic nature of Suprabhath's cuisine elevates the entire experience beyond its somewhat clumsy atmospherics, the food at Shalimar possesses no such redeeming virtue. Shoehorned into an aging Richardson strip mall (Richardson Heights Village), the place is a little ratty. It's soaked in pink (walls and tablecloths) and crusted with worn paneling and tattered carpeting, while the bar in the rear is barren and disheveled.

Palwinder Kaur purchased Shalimar, in operation in Dallas for roughly 10 years, some three months ago from Feteh Javed, the restaurant's owner for the last five years. Ms. Kaur retained most of the staff and left the menu, speckled with dishes from northern and southern India, largely intact.

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