The slapping pitter-patter thump of the tabla is contemplative. It's soothing and eerie. And this is what they pipe through the sound system at Udipi Café, a restaurant in Richardson serving South Indian vegetarian cuisine. The tabla is coupled with flutes that rise and fall with the intensity of the beats.It gets you in the mood. Until this gauze of music is pierced by the fluttering rings of cell phones, that is. The clientele at Udipi is almost exclusively Indian, drawn to Richardson no doubt by the city's burgeoning telecom corridor.
Udipi is situated in the space that used to be inhabited by Shalimar, a restaurant that served largely uninspired Indian fare. Udipi's food is cleaner and sprightlier, although it falls short of the cuisine served at Suprabhath, another South Indian restaurant in Richardson. But Udipi holds its own.
The menu is divided into sections: appetizers, soups, crepes (dosai), pancakes (uthappam), pullavs (rice dishes), and specialties of the house.
Udipi also serves thalis, perhaps the most engaging way to sample South Indian cuisine. The thali is a traditional Indian dinner served on a large round stainless-steel tray with an assortment of stainless-steel serving bowls, or katoris, holding various little dishes. Mysore royal thali has roughly 10 examples, most of them fired with searing spice. But the meal doesn't start out that way. It opens with a series of breads. Vegetable samosa, a dough roll stuffed with various vegetables such as potatoes and peas, was like a little wad of smooth paste coated with flaky puffs of pastry. It's tender and supple -- without a hint of grease. Vegetable cutlet, minced vegetables bread-crumbed, infused with spices, and deep-fried, was moist and chewy, as was the golden brown lentil dumpling.
Little dishes held a vast assortment of vegetables, soups, and rice creations (there was a boat of white rice in the center of the platter). The best was the avival, a smooth melding of vegetables and coconut sauce. But other examples were gripping too. A dish with strips of cabbage and spices had a nutty, almost sweet flavor, while a buttery lemon-rice dish with long, slender cones of brownish-red chili pepper peeking out from the yellow grains was smooth and separate. To ameliorate the spice burn throbbing through some of these little stainless bowls, it's good to dip into the dish of tangy, runny yogurt.
Pickle with lemon, a dish of pickled-beyond-recognition something or other, was so spicy and sharp, it was hard to chew. Which is why the delicious payasam, milk and honey infested with wormlike brown threads of vermicelli and raisins, was so welcome.
A la carte dishes hold just as many pleasant surprises. Palak paneer, fatigue-green pulverized spinach (frozen?) with little cubes of paneer (cheese made with whole milk and vinegar), is intensely seasoned with a clean curry aroma.
Tomato soup was dull and thin, while the house salad, a huge slaw-like mixture of lettuce, bell pepper, onion, tomato, and radishes, was crisp and sprightly, washed in a lemony dressing.
Udipi offers some dramatic flourishes as well, at least visually. Chana batura is a huge domed sheet of bread roughened with pastry pimples. Which is exactly what this satisfying bread tastes like (pastry, not pimples). It's chewy and tender with a flavor that leans toward sweetness without actually touching it. Tucked under the bread is a dish of chickpea stew heavily seasoned, breathing sweetness and heat in the same breath.
Though not as dramatic, the masala dosai was still satisfying. It's a dish with four supple rice crepes filled with minced potato, bell pepper, onion, carrot, and spices, and rolled like carpet remnants. When dipped in the accompanying dishes of smooth, green coconut chutney or sambar (a soupy spiced lentil and vegetable mixture), the flavor emerged with as much vigor as the fiber. Which is in ample supply here.
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