Walter Mencken 4 p.m., May 3
Vegetable curries in the South Indian fashion at Madras Cafe
A while back, I lavished some praise on Punjabi Tandoor for its hearty curries. Since then, I’ve had the vegetable curries of southern India on my mind, however, so I went back to Miramar in search of Madras Cafe, which I’d heard was a veritable fountain of Tamil food served on the characteristic stainless steel plates of India’s southern states (I suppose fresh banana leaves would be out of the question). After a few trips up and down Black Mountain Road, I spotted the cafe in a mini-mall with a grip of other Indian businesses.
Midweek, the restaurant serves thalis--roughly the Indian equivalent of a Hawaiian plate lunch. For about $9, a two course meal of starters, curries, rice, and soups provides ample, all-vegetarian sustenance. Yup, that’s right, Madras Cafe serves no meat. I didn’t miss it, either.
First course in the thali consisted potato-stuffed dosa and chickpea fritters, both of which were excellent when swished through the tangy, tamarind based sambar that came alongside. I also tried an order of idli soaked in sambar. I dearly love the little cakes of fermented rice and lentils that are a staple breakfast food and snack in southern India, and Madras’ idli didn’t disappoint. The were spongy, delicate, and fun to eat.
The curry dishes were a bit hit or miss. Stewed cabbage with coriander was a clear favorite and reminded me of the popular Ethiopian dish atakilt in some ways. A mushroom gravy was the only real downside of the meal as its funky, heavy flavor didn’t gel with the fresh, tangy zest of the other foods. The other, unidentified vegetable curries were just adequate. The rasam soup was too salty and not rich or tangy enough. Spreading liberal amounts of green coconut chutney and fresh yogurt on everything cooled and smoothed the robust flavors. I also loved the “sweet” that was served with the thali. It was a kind of rice cooked with jaggery (coarse sugar) that was just incredible when scooped up with a pinch of poori (a fluffy, fried bread that is a “must have”) and dipped in the tart yogurt.
For the best experience at Madras, stick with idli, dosa, and anything spiced with tamarind. The clean, tart flavors of southern India seem best expressed by those dishes. Some of the rice and curry dishes come with accoutrements and pickle for under $6, and I think it would be hard to find fault with that!
9484 Black Mountain Road
Tue: 11.00 -2.30, 5.30 - 9.30pm
Wed: 11.00 -2.30, 5.30 - 9.30pm
Thu: 11.00 -2.30, 5.30 - 9.30pm
Fri: 11.00 -2.30, 5.30 - 10.00pm
Sat: 11.30 -3.30, 5.30 - 10.00pm
Sun: 11.30 -3.30, 5.30 - 9.30pm
Closed on Mondays.