Vegging Out

Udipi Café's south Indian vegetarian fare proves meatless can be more

click to enlarge INDIAN JONES: A trek to Udipi Cafe can leave - even the confirmed carnivore yearning to return for - more. - VALERIE MURPHY
INDIAN JONES: A trek to Udipi Cafe can leave even the confirmed carnivore yearning to return for more.

Let's get this right out in the open: I'm a most joyful carnivore. The idea of a "pure vegetarian" restaurant didn't have me drooling. Don't get me wrong; I like curry as much as the next girl — but I always preferred it on chicken not chickpeas.

A recent visit to Udipi Café, however, cured me of all vegetarian misgivings. Though I'm not about to ditch the steaks, I discovered a whole new love of lentils. In fact, I found the vegetarian nature of the restaurant opened up my ordering horizons. Where, under other circumstances, I might have stuck with dishes I knew, the lack of familiar menu items gave me a new lease on the meatless.

Udipi Café is arranged in a sparse and simple style, with bright yellow walls and well-maintained brown booths. In fact, the lack of décor made me initially unsure that we'd come to the right place. However, a quick table check was all we needed to ascertain that we were indeed in an Indian restaurant. I've always maintained that it's a good sign to find an ethnic restaurant popular with the people from the region where the cuisine originated. If that were my only criterion for critique, Udipi Café would have a definite leg up on the competition. At no time during our meal did the percentage of Indian diners in the restaurant fall below 75 percent. Clearly, those in the know think Udipi is the place to be.

Which isn't to say that the good folks at Udipi are helpless in the face of a newbie. On the contrary, the servers were more than happy to explain the various menu items, make suggestions and repeatedly name the sundry sauces that are served with every dish.

To get a good feel for the appetizer options, we ordered a sampler platter ($6.95) that included a sizeable lentil donut, a potato-and-chickpea dumpling, a potato-and-pea-stuffed pastry, deep-fried veggie cutlets and deep-fried cheese. My dining companion, whose vegetarian skepticism left me in the dust, warmed up to the idea of all of the fried food — even if it was in chickpea batter. And as it turned out, once you've dipped the members of the medley in the assortment of sauces served with the platter, chickpeas are the last thing on your mind. I was especially fond of the flavorful, pyramid-shaped veggie pastry (also known as a samosa, and $3.25 on its own) with the tart black tamarind sauce. I also liked the potato dumpling (potato bondha, $3.50) and the orange onion sauce, sambar. My preferences came in handy, since my dining companion preferred the blander but filling lentil-flour donut (medhu vada, $3.50) and tasty, homemade cheese (paneer pakora, $4.95) with a very fresh mint chutney sauce.

We also tried some of the café's special weekend version of the steamed rice and lentil patties (kancheepurum iddly, $3.75). This type is supposed to be highly spiced, and does indeed hold a garnish of cashews and coriander — but this version didn't seem to have any more spice than the plain, workaday iddly ($3.50).

We took the recommendation of our server when navigating the pages of entrée options at Udipi, and had a better meal for it. While we were eating our appetizers, we couldn't help but notice other diners enjoying plates overflowing with enormous rice crepes, a traditional South Indian specialty known as dosai. Udipi Café has a dozen different dosai dishes ranging from mild to super-spicy. We went with the tame butter masala dosai ($6.50), which was stuffed with potatoes and onions cooked in butter. Though definitely not an entrée for devotees of Atkins or South Beach diets, the fluffy, carb-laden crepe proved delicious. And, as my dining companion so succinctly put it, "Butter! What's not to love?" Trust me, the meat was not missed.

My favorite entrée was the saffron curry, malai kofta ($7.95), a trio of potato-and-cheese balls soaking in the piquant and flavorful curry sauce. Though the dish didn't look like it would be enough (especially next to the humongous crepe in the other entrée), it was actually quite filling, and there was more than enough scrumptious sauce to pour over the side of rice served with the dish.

As if we hadn't consumed enough carbs by this time, we ordered a batura ($2.50), a puffy Indian bread that arrived looking like a golden harvest moon. The surface of the giant hollow sphere featured bubbles and craters that added texture to the slightly crunchy, slightly chewy puff. It was cheap, tasty, and once again, a carbohydrate feast. Halfway through the huge batura, we were not only stuffed, but perilously close to falling into a food coma.

Still, we made room for dessert, in this case, a mix of ground almonds cooked in honey and butter called badam halwa. We ordered a serving of this warm mixture with a scoop of ice cream ($3.50). Though it served as a decent ice cream topping, by itself, the rich, finely ground almond paste wasn't anything to write home about. I also tried an unfortunately tasteless Indian spiced tea ($1.25) and a tangy, yogurt-based mango milkshake ($2).

By the end of the meal, even the skeptics amongst us were convinced that there was more to meatless than met the eye. The fine food and variety of options at Udipi Café made it easy to understand why it is a popular choice for both the local Indian population and the veggie-curious of Tampa Bay.

Freelance writer Diana Peterfreund dines anonymously and the Planet pays for her meals. She may be contacted at [email protected]. Restaurants are chosen for review at the discretion of the writer, and are not related to advertising.

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