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April 2003
A Taste of Vegetarian India in New York

By Mia MacDonald



Even before I spent a summer in India, I was hooked on Indian food. Sure, it took me some time to get used to the spices, having been raised on fare that was, by and large, far less savory. But as the years went by, my spice tolerance increased, as did my comfort with samosas, curries, dosais, and the amazing textures and flavors of Indian breads. Being in India only increased my affection for the foods, and my respect for what so many Indian chefs—in urban bistros, small roadside kitchens and even homes—could do with vegetables, lentils, rice and the occasional mango. The transformation, which I often watched, at times seemed alchemical: piles of differently colored and shaped lentils combining into some of the best (and richest) dhals I’ve ever tasted, or some unprepossessing okra, when scrubbed, sliced, spiced, and fried becoming so sweet and luscious that I ate more than I could, or wanted, to count.

So, it’s a delight to live in New York City, where the number of vegetarian Indian restaurants keeps expanding. What follows is a short guide—admittedly subjective and idiosyncratic—of a number of Indian restaurants, all vegetarian and all in Manhattan, centered on “Little India,” the vibrant culinary epicenter of which is on Lexington Avenue between 27th and 28th Streets. While none of the restaurants are vegan (traditional Indian vegetarian cooking includes ghee—clarified butter—and milk as important elements, and their use is considered both healthy and reverent, a means of acknowledging and honoring the cow’s divinity), many dishes are already, or can be made, vegan. Some menus even indicate which dishes are or are not dairy-free.

Many Indian restaurants in the U.S., including those profiled here, use vegetable oil, not ghee, as a cooking staple, largely to respond to Americans’ concerns about saturated fat, but also in some measure to increased awareness of vegan lifestyles. Most dishes, unless they are described as “creamy,” won’t usually contain milk or butter. Still, it’s probably best to ask. This is particularly true for set menus or “thali,” a South Indian dining tradition. A number of small, pre-prepared dishes are served in separate bowls on a large tin plate (the colors of the food are often beautiful grouped together); selections change daily and no menu is provided. Eating a thali often means faster service, although less control over a meal, a situation that can often be refreshing in a world of choice.

At just about all of these restaurants (exceptions are noted), two people can eat dinner for $30 or less. Appetizers are generally priced between $3.50 and $8; entrées (including curries, utthappam and dosai), between $7 and $9, and breads $2 to $4; a thali, also called a combination dinner, costs between $11 and $14 for dinner, $6 or $7 for lunch. Call for hours, but most of the restaurants are open on weekdays for lunch 12-3 and dinner 5-10. Some serve inexpensive lunch buffets on weekdays, while on weekends, dinner only (after 5 p.m.) is the norm.

Pongal, 110 Lexington Avenue (between 27th and 28th Streets); (212) 696-9458.
This restaurant, an upstart only eight years ago when it began challenging the venerable Madras Mahal just a few doors away, is now the dining place of choice for a growing number of New Yorkers and visitors from out of town, including, one of the owners says, ministers from the Indian government visiting from New Delhi (India’s Prime Minister doesn’t dine at Pongal, but does ask, it’s said, for dosais and utthappam to be delivered to his hotel when he’s in town). It’s probably my favorite, too: the food is fresh, the lighting is soft, the red-cushioned chairs inviting, and the décor of exposed brick walls adorned with masks of Hindu deities attractive.

The cuisine is influenced by what’s eaten in the South Indian city of Madras, and includes a number of vegetable and lentil curries, dosais (pronounced doe-sah, a wheat, rice or lentil flour pancake, sautéed and stuffed with spiced potatoes and if desired, other vegetables, then rolled into a huge beige horn) served with coconut chutney and sambar (a spicy bean soup), and utthappam (a softer, lighter pizza-like creation, that can be a meal in itself or a complement to curries). Various appetizers are also on offer, from soup to iddly—steamed lentil flour cakes served with spicy dhal (lentil) sauce. Among my favorites: the mixed vegetable utthappam and the lentil curries.

Madras Mahal
, 104 Lexington Avenue (between 27th and 28th Streets); (212) 684-4010.
Just doors away is Madras Mahal, the first of the Indian vegetarian restaurants to open on this block more than a decade ago. For years, Madras Mahal was packed with people eating delicious South Indian dosai and spicy curries from the state of Gujarat in western India in one of the least conducive atmospheres: drab white walls, wallpapered with mirrors and rather harsh lighting. It didn’t seem to matter: people came for the food, not the décor. But once Pongal began luring some of Madras Mahal’s crowds, a renovation was undertaken, and now the lights are soft, the walls freshly painted, and small recesses hold statues of Hindu gods. It’s far more pleasant (more like Pongal—the same designer did both) and the food is still great.

On a recent cold night I enjoyed an iddly appetizer (fresh and soft), a deliciously smooth chana masala (chickpea curry) with steaming, fragrant basmati rice and light, fluffy poori bread; topped off with two cups of spiced tea (no soy milk though, alas). Take-out is popular here as well, and the front desk is busy throughout the evening filling orders.

Udipi Palace, 101 Lexington Avenue (between 27th and 28th Streets); (212) 889-3477.
On the east side of Lexington Avenue is Udipi Palace (formerly called New Madras Palace), also serving a wide range of South Indian dishes as well as curries from Gujarat and beyond. Dosai is a specialty here, with 16 different kinds available (rivaling the selection at Dosai Hut across the street, another recently-arrived vegetarian Indian eatery). One dosai that was particularly good and unusual, the palak masala, had spinach embedded into the crepe before the spiced potatoes were layered on top. The mulligatawny soup is also very good: a smooth and lightly spiced combination of yellow lentils and green peas. Do ask about dairy, though—a fair number of the curries are made with ghee or cream. What undercuts Udipi Palace’s strengths in food is its lack of ambiance. Diners eat upstairs or down in a space that resembles an undecorated diner—boxy, bright, bland and often silent. (Perhaps Shashi Tharoor, advisor to UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, usually has a book with him when he comes; he’s said to favor Udipi Palace.) Sometimes lively Indian pop music plays on the sound system, but often not. This drawback may be remedied when, as the owners have planned, the restaurant moves to a bigger space next door.

Vatan, 409 Third Avenue (at 29th Street); (212) 689-5666.
Just a few blocks away, Vatan, its entranceway adorned with a golden elephant (but often seems to be obscured by scaffolding), serves Gujarati-inspired food in a lavish space painted and decorated to evoke a Gujarati village, complete with a well at the foot of a banyan tree. Diners remove their shoes to sit on fluffy cushions in booths surrounding a central courtyard, and are served a four-course set meal by elaborately jeweled waitresses in lovely Gujarati style clothes. If this sounds rather unreal, it is. Some find it kitschy and rather over-produced. Others, like me, like it (the place is often full on weeknights and usually booked weekends—reservations are strongly recommended), although only on special occasions and when I really want to eat a lot—and spend more on dinner than I normally would.

This is a place to go when you are hungry. The set meal ($21.95 prix fixe), which resembles a thali, includes trays of small, tasty appetizers, soup, rice, several entrées in small, round dishes (portions are not huge), and dessert, all of which comes automatically, one course following on another. I find the food very good, although it’s sometimes hard, given all the tastes, to really discern what’s making each dish taste so good (or less good). Vatan’s manager says that about 90 to 95 percent of the food is cooked dairy-free, but since it’s all prepared in advance, it’s best to ask. Vatan is open for dinner only, Tuesday to Sunday, from 5 p.m.

Two other restaurants, off the Little India grid, deserve mention. Both serve thali-style meals at lunch and dinner at set prices, with menus changing daily.

Ayurveda Café, 706 Amsterdam Avenue (at 94th Street); (212) 932-2400. [see review in Satya, June 1999]
Affiliated with an ayurvedic health center on 96th Street, the Upper West Side’s Ayurveda Café serves food based on the principles of ayurveda, an ancient Indian healing system, so meals all incorporate six tastes deemed essential for healthy eating: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, astringent and pungent. What this means is that lunch or dinner’s appetizer, vegetable main course, rice, salad and condiments—all served together on a large thali plate—may include a sweetish dish of greens and spices along with a rather sour “pickle” sauce. This also means that the emphasis in the food is on health, not gourmet taste. Still, a meal at the Ayurveda Café is satisfying and feels more nourishing than some Indian meals can, especially those where oil is used over-liberally. The space is also conducive to good eating: pink-purple walls, plants, statues of Hindu gods and an air of calm. I’d recommend being hungry when you go—it is a lot of food. I’d also recommend asking that the rice portion (basmati or brown) be reduced; I find it huge. Also, ask which dishes contain dairy, as some do.

, 28 Greenwich Avenue (near 6th Avenue); (212) 367-7411.
Thali is a sliver of a space in the West Village that serves lunch and dinner. The long, thin room, painted bright yellow and festooned with wall hangings, seems no more than eight feet wide, with a number of small tables extending from front to back, where the kitchen is. On offer: a menu that changes daily and includes sturdy appetizers, dhal (spiced lentils), two vegetable main dishes, rice and dessert. Since some dishes may contain dairy, ask before you eat. Minimalist Thali reminds me of when I ate my first thali at a beachfront space in Bombay that looked more like a worse-for-the-wear White Castle than a culinary mecca. The meal was unexpectedly great, and the clientele included some of Bombay’s cultural and economic elite, from various parts of the city, all coming for one thing: the food (well, the view of the sea didn’t hurt).

I wonder whether New Yorkers, used to being in control, will take to thali-style eating. Less choice, yes, but also more speed: since there’s no menu, food can be served soon after you sit down. So a meal can be very fast, or, here’s an idea: the “extra” time could be spent lingering over the food, mindfully appreciating the spices and textures. I’m getting hungry just thinking about the possibilities.

Mia MacDonald is a long-time animal activist and vegan. She is a writer who recently co-authored the chapter “Linking Population, Women and Biodiversity” in the State of the World 2003, an annual report on the environment produced by the Worldwatch Institute. She lives in Brooklyn.


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