Madras Pavilion’s exotic southern Indian dishes overcome a sterile setting
The creators of Madras Pavilion would do well to rent Monsoon Wedding and screen it several times; they would be reminded of the visual heritage they should have inherited along with the culinary.
I say this because the dominant decorative element at San Antonio’s newly opened branch of this Houston favorite is the buffet table. Gleaming in metal and glass and bristling with cards promising the likes of goat curry and ras jamun at lunchtime, the buffet table sits scrubbed and empty in the evening. Given the choice, I’d pick silk over Stainless Steel as a decorative motif any time.
|From front: Traditional nan flat bread, vegetarian haka noodles, tandoori chicken, goat curry, Medhu Vada, lightly spiced lentil donuts, and Masala Dosai, rice crepes filled with potatoes and onion. (Photos by Mark Greenberg)
If the interior says corporate dining room, the menu suggests saris. Madras Pavilion lavishes its creativity on southern Indian vegetarian dishes, starting with appetizers such as the iddly ... gotta love the name. Billed as a steamed rice and lentil patty, it’s really more like blini on steroids; the texture is spongy from fermented batter, and the taste is nearly neutral, providing an appropriate foil for dips (or drizzles) of dal, curry, and coconut chutney. This dish is a must.
So is sambar vada, a lentil “doughnut” served in a soupy dal made with dried pigeon peas and jazzed up with an entire market’s worth of spices, including the complex sambar powder that counts fenugreek, tamarind, and chilies among its ingredients. The vada is doughnut-shaped and its lightly spiced and nutty flavor complements the dal. Another imperative is the impressive dosai, thin rice crepes served plain for anointing or pre-stuffed with a variety of ingredients. With the rolled Mysore masala dosai, harboring chutney, potatoes, onions, and peas, more chutney wouldn’t be remiss, but this was nevertheless a keeper.
Described as “Indian pizza,” the uthappam might be better thought of as an eggless frittata. Our vegetable-studded version of this thick lentil-and-rice-flour pancake was good, but not exciting — though the addition of chutney and a slathering of sambal created marginal magic.
Normally, an appetizer such as the crumbed and fried, minced vegetable “cutlet” (it’s more of a cigar in form) would have stood out, but in this context it was only average. Noori malai tikka consists of cubes (in this case, more like diminutive cutlets) of chicken marinated in cream, cheese, and cashew paste, and cooked in the tandoor. If the taste doesn’t directly reflect all the marinating, the result is supremely satisfying, especially when enhanced with the tamarind and cilantro chutneys. Better still is the crusty (and only slightly overcooked) brace of tiny lamb chops seasoned with a yogurt marinade. Pick them up by the handy handle and have at it.
| Madras Pavilion
11am-2:30pm & 5:30-9:30pm Mon-Thu,
11am-2:30pm & 5:30-10pm Fri,
11:30am-10pm Sat & Sun
Price range: $6-14
For a restaurant with vegetarian leanings, it’s surprising that eggplant doesn’t appear on the menu, but not to worry: The kitchen can turn out a fine, fragrant baingan masala on request. From the menu, the kadai bindi okra curry is a real revelation. Brightly spicy and still almost crunchy, this curry, much like a stir-fry, is eons away from the savory mush of hard-to-identify ingredients often served on buffet lines. Spooned over Madras’ impeccable white rice, it could make vegans of many of us. More overtly exotic, yet still vegetarian, is the Hyderabadi biriyani. Announced by its mint scent, the rice blend includes cashews, fried onion bits, and a host of unidentified spices, all making for an elegant entrée.
Many vegetarian dishes achieve the hearty quality thought the exclusive domain of meat, and it’s true that the seductive Goani fish curry might have been as good with just cubed potato. But the delicate fish was hard to fault, and the coconut-based curry, enlivened with curry leaves and hinting at citrus and Thai flavors, provided an exquisite backdrop. Cubes of potato do appear in the irresistible lamb vindaloo, another specialty of Goa, the former Portuguese colony, and easily the most overtly exotic dish of the evening. Vindaloo is an anomalous mountain of complex spices, of which cinnamon is only the tip; Madras’ also features a modestly elevated heat level and tender lamb that is just bold enough to hold its own.
Compared to all the above, the kulfi falooda might appear to be almost American — at least in its basic form. Served in a soda-fountain glass, this dessert consists of a scoop of house-made Indian ice cream (mango or almond) afloat in a bath of rosewater perfumed milk, and garnished with “tendered” vermicelli and a scattering of soaked seeds that take on a mucilaginous, almost caviar-like quality. It’s quite bizarre — especially if you are imprudent enough to stir up the assertive rose water from the bottom of the glass — but there’s admittedly an excessive, Bollywood feel to the whole thing. And, falooda, you gotta love the name. •