Udipi Pure Vegetarian Cuisine opened a few months ago in the spot formerly occupied by Taj Mahal and is owned by Senthil Raja, a chef from southern India, and Navneet Hasija, a native of New Delhi in northern India, who manages the front of the house. Both earned degrees in hotel management (which included culinary courses) in India, and both worked together at Bombay Cuisine, also in the University area. Ironically, neither Raja nor Hasija are vegetarians, but they saw the need for a vegetarian restaurant in the university area. The menu, however, is not limited to Indian cuisine. "We did not use the term Indian food in the name on purpose," says Hasija. "Not all of the dishes are Indian. Some are Indo-Chinese."
Outside the front door of Udipi is a rack for the North Carolina Indian magazine, the first clue that good Indian food will await the diner. The interior seems eerily quiet. A blue Krishna and his love are featured prominently on the side wall murals. To the rear is the lunch buffet line with a small opening to the kitchen above that. The interior is sparse. Booths line the side walls and tables fill the middle, but the room is dimly lit and lacks character, even a kitsch ethnic decor.
The diners are a mixed group. A few families crowd into booths. A large party has tables strung together in the center of the dining rooms while a Rastafarian lingers over a dosa. Waiters in street clothes bring out armfuls of dishes.
What will keep you in your seat are the spicy offerings from the kitchen. There is nothing ho-hum about this food. The menu offers choices from southern Indian cuisine, Gujarati (west Indian), northern Indian, and Chinese-Indian fusion. Raja experiments with ingredients and adds freshness and flavor complexity.
South India is the land of mild idli, or rice cakes, and fiery rasam, a lentil tamarind soup with tomatoes, curry leaves, black mustard seeds, chilies, and cumin. Basmati rice is the staple of the South whereas wheat and naan are the staples of the cooler North. Gujarati, or western cuisine, is also primarily vegetarian with millet, yogurt and buttermilk as prime ingredients.
Reading Udipi's menu is a feat unto itself with 23 dosas and 29 curries. The appetizers offer the first hint of a flavorful meal. Flaky samosas were quite nice and filled with potatoes, onions, peas and spices. The Idly Manchurian, one of the featured Indo-Chinese dishes, is a bowl filled with fried rice cakes dressed with a vaguely sweet sauce. The Kanchipuram Idlis, Indian street food made with semolina and not rice, are well produced.
Dosas seem to be the heart of the menu and ordering one is a must. Dozens of possibilities exist for these oversized fermented rice or lentil flour crepes. Choose from plain masala potatoes, with butter or ghee to the more exotic with spinach, chilies and cheese, chutney and vegetables, or the house specialty of bananas. Dosa combinations are similar to pizza toppings: You order to taste. If you can't decide, go with the sampler, which offers three varieties. Similar to the dosas are the Uthappams, or pancakes, which are also offered in a dozen or so configurations.
Bread is essential. However, the naan lacks that smoky taste. Better are the batura, the large puffy bread, or the more festive fried poori served with a chickpea curry.
While the menu dotes on dosas, the kitchen also offers finely crafted, well prepared curries which do not shy away from a fiery finish. Classics, such as Aloo Gobi, Channa (chickpea) Masala and Baingan Bartha, a char-grilled eggplant curry, honorably pay their respects to tradition. The rasam, too, is delicious, though highly seasoned.
Udipi's lunch buffet is possibly the largest vegetarian buffet in the city and is $6 during the week and $8 on the weekend. The weekends, however, offer unlimited dosas and over 30 dishes. Currently, Udipi serves no alcohol although a beer license is expected to be issued in the next few weeks.
A fast growing segment of the population are alternivores, those who might, when given a choice, opt to order a vegetarian dish. At Udipi, you may forget that the dishes are meatless and simply enjoy this full-bodied, hale cuisine.
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