When the choice is made to dine on South Indian cuisine, you know you’re in for a meal bordering on infernal, but no restaurant forewarns unsuspecting and uninformed diners quite like Udipi Café. Above the front door, suspended like a wind chime, is a string of hot green chilies with a lemon at the core. The talisman is intended to ward off drishti, or evil eye, but it just happens to contain the ingredients common to many dishes served here.
The strip-mall space once housed the popular Clay Oven restaurant, but it’s now part of the Sheregar family’s empire of South Indian sit-downs stretching up and down the Eastern seaboard. Inside, the air is thick with the scent of pungent spices. White and red walls have replaced Clay Oven’s intricate tapestries and accents; lustrous black booths and tables highlight the simple, brightly lit dining room.
The menu sticks to South India’s classic vegetarian canon, particularly the regional delicacies of Udipi, a coastal city in southwest India and birthplace of those impeccably fried, paper-thin dosai (you’ll find 18 different types here). With 120 assorted items on the menu, variety literally becomes the spice of life, and the rasam soup ($2.50) provides the sort of sensory slap-me-up South Indian dishes are known for. The bowl of liquid fire is a light sour-and-salty broth flavored with split peas, curry leaves, tomatoes, tamarind and assorted powdered spices, then garnished with fresh cilantro. Finish a bowl and your head will twitch and tingle – guaranteed.
An assorted appetizer platter ($7.95), served with a coconut chutney dip and a vibrant seasoned pea-and-lentil stew called sambar, offers a representative sampling of South Indian starters. The best of the lot were the potato bonda (a fried dumpling coated in chickpea flour), medhu vada (a dense lentil donut), iddly (spongy steamed rice and lentil cake) and the deep-fried mixed-veggie cutlet. The potato pakora and samosa were largely forgettable, but what really stuck in my belly was the weight of all those fried starters.
Udipi’s specialty dosai are exceptional. A batter of rice flour and ground lentils is spread thin on a large griddle, then rolled to produce a lacy, cylindrical crepe with a subtle crisp. The plate was hardly big enough to contain the cheese masala dosa ($8.45), perched atop a plantain leaf. Though a dosa can look intimidating, my ploy is to tear into it with my hands, scoop some of the filling, and dunk it into the piquant sambar, which I prefer as a dip to the coconut chutney served alongside.
I like to order a side bread to sop up any remnant sambar, and the batura ($2.95), a deep-fried, whole-wheat dirigible, was simply outstanding. Pooris ($2.45), miniature versions of the batura, are just as good, as is the paratha ($1.95), a layered flatbread.
Vegetable uthappam ($7.45), the dosa’s thicker, pancake-like cousin, is a colorful mosaic of onions, tomatoes and peas cooked in batter. Every dunk into the sambar and coconut chutney yielded an exclamation of gratification, but finishing it proved next to impossible – downing fried fare is an utterly bloating endeavor.
Pongal avial ($8) is a porridge-like comfort staple made from slow-cooked rice and moong beans, but it lacked the desired loose, creamy consistency and instead resembled a thick risotto. The fiery coconut curry (avial), a saucy topper of cauliflower, potatoes, peas and lima beans, almost redeemed the dish. Accompanying pachadi, a raita-like yogurt-based coolant, provided a palliative wash.
Desserts are weighty enders as well. Pass on pedestrian gulab jamun ($2.50), and opt for addictive falooda ($3.95), a milkshake of vanilla ice cream, vermicelli, condensed milk and tapioca seeds drizzled with sweet rosewater. A post-meal practice I learned from mom is to take any of the leftover breads and dunk them into a cup of chai ($1.50), though it will leave grease trails in your tea. Mysore coffee ($1.75) requires repetitive pouring from a stainless steel bowl (dabarah) to a stainless steel tumbler. Just be careful not to burn your fingers.
Discerning diners may want to wait a few weeks to allow service kinks (missed orders, no napkins, empty water glasses) to be worked out, though I imagine starved vegetarians darted to Longwood soon after reading the first paragraph.