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The Incidental Vegetarian

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One general guideline which can help you find an excellent ethnic restaurant at bargain prices is to look beyond the menu. The same menu item may appear on menus at different restaurants across the city, but these dishes can be prepared in various ways, some more accommodating to Americanized tastes and subsequently less authentic, less piquant. Here's a general rule: if there is a conspicuous lack of customers from the restaurant's cuisine's native population, the food will most certainly be lacking as well. Thankfully, this was not the case at Woodlands Pure Vegetarian South Indian Cuisine that opened last June. On a Friday night, numerous Indian families began arriving by 7pm and within a half hour the room was buzzing. Staff quickly reconfigured tables to accommodate the larger groups while others waded among the tables delivering the complimentary loaves of hot crispy pappadam with the accompanying sweet and hot dipping sauces. Co-owners Narayan Mogera and Ragavendra Sheregar are both from the state of Karnataka in southwestern India on the Arabian Sea. Karnataka is a region where rice, corn, wheat, mango, oranges, and cashews, among other products, are grown. The restaurant is named not only for the hardwood forests which dominate Mogera's native landscape, but also for a well known South Indian restaurant near the Sri Krishna temple in Udipi, Karnataka. Says Mogera, "We chose the name because it is easy for both Indians and Americans. The Indians know of the Woodlands in India as a family restaurant and this is a family restaurant. We don't sell alcohol and there is no meat. Everything is simple and pure. And all families can afford it." Before coming to Charlotte, Mogera managed similar Indian restaurants in Fairfax, VA and in Maryland. The cuisine featured at Woodlands is Udipi, South Indian-style vegetarian. South India is the land of idlis, vadas, sambars, and rasams. Basmati, and other long grain rice, is a staple. This fiery, aromatic cuisine incorporates such ingredients as lentils, tomatoes, sizzling pickles, curry leaves, cilantro, black mustard seeds, chilies, onions, turmeric, bay leaves, coriander, cumin seeds, saffron, mango, cashews, almonds, and potatoes. Vegetarianism has long been followed among certain Hindu sects. Most are the kind of vegetarians who abstain from foods whose production involves the destruction of living animals, but are not vegans, that is, those who do not eat foods derived from animals, including dairy products such as eggs, milk, cheese, butter and other foods such as honey. Yogurt, honey, cheese, and ghee, a form of clarified butter, are elements of south Indian cuisine. Though the exterior is sparse, the interior of the 75-seat Woodlands is crisp. Walls are white with few adornments except the Oriental art work behind the cash register, a reminder that this location was once a Chinese restaurant. Informed servers are friendly, or incredibly friendly, and the kitchen is willing to entertain special requests, such as vegan preparation. The flavorful scents of aromatic spices permeate the room. Mellow Indian jazz pleases the ear while the room energy grows with each arriving Indian family. The food comes quickly and delicate wafer thin pappadams succumb to a gentle touch. The menu offers the better known as well as some lesser known South Indian dishes. The breakfast snack Idli, steamed rice and lentil patties, is one of the quintessential south Indian foods and a good choice with which to begin the meal. On the weekends, Woodlands offers a jazzed up Idli (Kancheepurum) which has cashews, carrots and coriander. Also order the Assorted Appetizers, a cascade of goodies which include Medhu Vada which are fried lentil donuts with ginger, coconut, and cumin seeds; Mysore Bonda, a lentil dumpling; Vegetable Samosa, a crispy crust stuffed with potatoes and peas; an expertly fried minced Vegetable Cutlet, actually a fritter, and Paneer Pakora, deep fried slices of cheese. All for seven bucks. Entree selection is more difficult since you may want to have one dish from each column. But I'm partial -- if not addicted -- to the spectacular Paper Masala Dosai. This is a wondrous dish. A two foot long thin rice crepe, much wider than the plate beneath it, loosely wrapped around a spicy mix of potatoes, onions and nuts. If you can be diverted from Dosai, try the savory saffron cashew curry with the potato dumplings. One of the safest routes is ordering a Pullav, a rice dish. The most simple one is full of carrots, peas, and bits of dried fruits. Even though rice comes with many dishes you may want to order the bread. The cleanly fried poori is hot and luscious. Even the supporting characters are terrific: creamy Raita, bewitchingly pungent Sambar, and fruity chutney. Woodlands serves no alcohol but makes up for this with their family friendly smoothies, teas, and coffees. One drink which is synonymous with Karnataka is the Badam (almond) smoothie. Another is the mango smoothie. Or sip the rose water Falooda or a Lassi, a popular yogurt drink. Sweet desserts are an integral part of the Indian meal. The Badam Halwa, a mix of ground almonds cooked in butter and ghee with served with almond ice cream, is an excellent end to the meal. Also on the menu are rasam, a well known sour and spicy South Indian soup; 11 curries served with rice and raita (all $6.95); 13 varieties of Dosai served with sambar and chutney ($4.75-$6.50); seven varieties of Uthappam, Indian style pancakes ($5.50-$6.25); eight rice dishes (all $5.25); Thalis, an Indian combination plate ($12.50 and $14.95); and six house specials including Malabar Adai, Pongal Avial, Poori Bhaji, and Gobi Manchurian with cauliflower sauteed with garlic, ginger, chilies and soy sauce ($4.50-$6.50). The number of vegetarians in the US is thought to have doubled in the past 10 years. Even more people have become semi-vegetarian, those who exclude beef, veal, pork, lamb, and game from their diets. And then there is another growing segment: alternivores, those who, given an attractive choice, opt to order a vegetarian or a meatless meal. However, the fact that Woodlands is a vegetarian restaurant should not be what prompts you to visit it. The fact is Woodlands is a wonderful restaurant which just happens to be vegetarian. Woodlands Pure Vegetarian South Indian Cuisine 7128-A Albemarle Road. Hours are 11:30am until 3pm and 5pm until 9:30pm Tuesday through Thursday, until 10pm on Sunday. On Friday and Saturday the restaurant is open all day from 11:30am until 10pm. 704-569-9193 (frequently answered by automated service). Visa, MC. Closed Monday.

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