Robert Rich's Food Page has moved to Flavor
by Robert Rich, January 2003, for MV Voice
After having some of the best meals of my life in the homes of Indian friends, I became a bit jaded about most local Indian restaurants. But when a friend recommended Udupi Palace, I wanted to give it a try.
Located on El Camino south of Wolf Road, Udupi Palace comprises part of a scattered chain of ten or so restaurants owned by a Bay Area partnership. With locations ranging from Toronto, Seattle, Queens, Fremont and Los Angeles, the sites all correspond to Indian communities.
Udupi Palace specializes in South Indian vegetarian cuisine. Its sister restaraunt, Kaaraikudi near Bernardo on El Camino, serves meat dishes. Yet even carnivores must concede that this food doesn't need meat. The flavors are so rich and complex, the textures so satisfying, that animal proteins need not enter the experience.
We first visited Udupi Palace on a cold rainy night, and the restaurant proved a good choice with its heavy warming dishes. When I say heavy, I mean gargantuan, gigantic, Brobdingnagian portions of caloric, rib-sticking, aromatic food. After merely denting the huge courses, my wife and I left with enough leftovers for the weekend.
Udupi Palace has a slightly cold interior, with black granite tables, tile floor and tan Corinthian columns supporting white stucco ceiling, with recesses holding bronze statuettes of Hindu dieties.
During the dinner rush, service seemed hurried and a bit challenged by the crowd, yet very attentive considering the bustle. Food came fast and without fanfare. Yet, when I had questions about the ingredients in my dishes, our waiter generously paused to describe the food.
Food comes first here, affordable, flavorful and plentiful. With its large variety of traditional South Indian specialties, the quality of Udupi Palace's food impressed me. Spices tasted fresh, ingredients for each dish matched the flavorings. In a busy kitchen like this one, maintaining such a complex menu presents a serious challenge.
A mango lassi ($2.75) arrived quickly to our table, and I noticed an aromatic thread of saffron floating on the top. The saffron infused the thick sweet blend of yogurt, buttermilk and mango juice with its delicate perfume; a delicious companion to our meal.
The assorted Palace hors d'oeuvres ($6.95) could have fed six people. We barely made a dent in this huge platter of fried morsels. The assortment provided a great way to sample the numerous appetizers offered on the menu.
Appetizers included idly (a rice-flour dumpling) and sambar, a soup of lentils, onions, peppers, cilantro, coriander and other spices. The sambar showed good balance between spicy and savory flavors, perfect with a bit of idly to soak the broth.
Almost a dozen bhajia covered the platter, slices of onion and potato, heavily breaded and fried, like puffy spiced onion rings. A dish of coconut cilantro chutney (and another with ketchup that we ignored) provided dipping sauce.
Several large bonda added serious substance, and a donut-shaped medhu vada topped the stack like a puffy rice-flour halo. The bonda resembled huge vegetable fritters made from lentils, potatoes, peas, onion, and numerous spices like cilantro, tumeric, mustard seed, coriander and cumin, perhaps a touch of lemon juice for light fresh overtones.
These appetizers and other fried South Indian specialties taste best when fresh, hot and crisp. Like most deep-fried foods, they don't make good leftovers. I expect they would lose their appeal for takeout as well. These treats are a guilty pleasure, like French fries or donuts. It would seem a bit silly to complain about the grease. Yes, they're greasy. Nobody said vegetarian food had to be low-calorie.
A Dose of Dosa
In an oversimplified way, dosa seems the prototypical dish of South India, like the hamburger to America or fish and chips to England. This huge crispy rice crepe, rolled and filled with various vegetables, probably appears on more lunch tables at Udupi Palace than any other dish.
We tried the special paneer burjee dosa ($5.75), a variation I haven't seen elsewhere in the Bay Area. The paneer dosa came with sambar soup and coconut chutney, just like the appetizer, and likewise made a meal unto itself.
Paneer is Indian cottage cheese with spices. This filling looked almost like scrambled eggs, colored yellow from tumeric, with cumin, coriander, onion. It tasted aromatic and light.
I noticed several whole fresh curry leaves blended with the paneer filling, contributing their characteristic complex flavor reminiscent of black pepper. This leaf gave the word "curry" to the English, who thereafter misapplied it to every Indian dish that involved sauce and spices.
Udupi Palace offers over a dozen different dosas ($5.25 - $7.95) with fillings ranging from standard potato and peas to spicy vegetable blends or spinach. With so many choices of dosa filling, some differences seemed quite subtle (for example "cream of wheat and rice" vs. "cream of wheat, rice and onion.")
The menu features many items besides dosas. Uthapam is a soft pancake-like bread, as apposed to the crispy rolled dosa. Toppings for Uthapam ($5.25 - $6.75) include rice and lentils, onions and hot chiles, mixed vegetables, paneer and peas, even pineapple chunks.
Thali for Two
In order to try a variety of the other dishes, I orderd the nightly special thali dinner. Thali signifies the metal serving dish, which usually carries many small metal bowls holding a variety of preparations and sauces.
This particular thali combination ($10.95) looked larger than most. With a whopping ten small dishes, plus chutney, yogurt, rice, crispy papadum and puffy fried poori bread, it could easily serve two people as a main course. I could barely scratch the surface.
Along with sambar (the lentil soup mentioned earlier) I enjoyed the rasam, a spicy sour soup blending tamarind and tomatoes. Bisibele bath included various vegetables in a smooth blend of crushed rice and spices. Navaratan korma tasted subtly sweet, with cashew paste, cream and mixed vegetables.
The rajma dal had a tart tomato base with brown lentils. I was surprised to discover an unfamiliar root vegetable in the arbai masala, a feisty mix of onion chunks, green peppers and arbai, a tuber resembling unsweet yams. Ingredients like this pique my curiosity. I enjoy discovering new tastes.
In another twist on tropical ingredients, the plantain curry had a powdery dry texture, with onions, seeds and a variety of aromatic spices. Plantains resemble bananas without the banana flavor, and provide starch for much of Africa and parts of the Asian subcontinent.
My thali also featured two sweets. A warm beetroot payasam combined ghee (clarified butter), sugar, beets, cashews and raisins in a curiously elusive soup that reminded me of some Chinese sweet bean desserts. I tasted a hint of rose and cardamon in the other dessert, jalebi, a small coil of fried flour with sugar syrup. I have yet to develop a taste for jalebi and similar fried desserts, but this seemed less cloying than most.
I realized I should have asked for "extra spicey" when I ordered my dinner. Most South Indian food is fiery hot, and Udupi Palace tames the flames for American palates. I enjoy the extremities. Considering the large percentage of Indian clientele, I suspect the kitchen can easily adjust hotter on request.
On the surface, Udupi Palace looks like many other pragmatic local Indian restarants. Yet it distinguishes itself by its authentic fresh ingredients, quality, efficient service and huge servings, all at very affordable prices.
Robert Rich's Food Page has moved to Flavor