Café: A Taste of South India in the East Village
Restaurant Review by Sangamithra Iyer
When people think of Indian food in the East
Village, Curry Row, the strip of densely packed and suspiciously
on 6th Street adorned with year-round Christmas decorations and chili
pepper lights, comes to mind. While it’s a cheap adventure in
Indian dining, it’s not the finest, lacking an overwhelmingly
impressive selection of vegan and vegetarian options. Like most Indian
restaurants, northern dishes are common there, and it can be a struggle
to satisfy those of us who grew up on or crave the unique flavors
of south India.
Previously having to trek to Lexington’s Curry Hill in the 20s or Jackson
Heights in Queens, we now can enjoy dosais and iddlies in a sedate and fauna-free
environment just around the corner from Curry Row. Madras Café, located
at 79 2nd Avenue, offers the tastiest Indian cuisine in the village, uniquely
specializing in south Indian vegetarian kosher fare.
Opened in 1997 by owner and chef Munirathinam Sridhar, the restaurant incorporates
Udupi cuisine—lentils, cream of wheat and rice, and spices unique to south
India. Udupi dishes include uttapum, a thick and hearty vegetable pancake; masala
dosai, a soft and crispy lentil crepe stuffed with a savory potato filling; iddlies,
soft steamed rice flour cakes; vadas, crispy on the outside, soft on the inside
lentil donuts; and the owner’s mom’s specialty, adai, a multi-grain,
multi-lentil vegetable pancake. These all are served with a delightful coconut
chutney and sambar, a lentil and vegetable soup, spiced to perfection for dipping.
In addition to flavors from the south, Madras Café offers the more familiar
dishes of northern India. Yummy appetizers include pakoras and samosas with just
the right crispy and flaky consistency. A large selection of curries including
my favorites of chana saag, a chickpea and spinach curry, and aloo gobi, potatoes
and cauliflower sautéed in an onion masala with peppers, are available
to explore. They even offer a special north-south hybrid of dosai served with
mixed vegetable or spinach curry.
The menu is extensive, and for those of you who can’t make up your mind,
the adventuresome and filling thali meals are recommended. For $10.95 you receive
a large platter with rice, bread, soup, appetizer, dessert, and a sampling
of tasty entrees. The thali options include dishes from Tamil Nadu, Bombay,
a special yogi vegan variety. You can also come for their $6.95 lunch specials
on weekdays with a friend and order the north Indian lunch special and the
south Indian masala dosai to share.
Madras Café will cater to your level of spice. There’s a cute little
saying on their menu, “First bite it hurts and you cry, second bite doesn’t
hurt, third bite it’s the tastiest dish you ever had.” For those
who like to live dangerously, the vegetable jalfrazi, sautéed vegetables
and soy chunks in a Kashmir chilli sauce, is for you. You can also spice up
your dosai by ordering the fiery Mysore variety, and for a warming and sinus
experience, I opt for my favorite, the tamarind and peppercorn rasam soup.
While purely vegetarian, Madras Café truly accommodates and caters to
the vegan crowd. The menu clearly identifies the plentitude of vegan options.
All of their breads including their nans, parathas, poories and rotis are dairy
free and vegan. Masala chai can be made with soymilk, and even a dish like the
creamy vegetable korma has been veganized using coconut rather than cow’s
milk. They offer a TVP curry, replacing the typical cheese paneer. And while
you wouldn’t expect it from an Indian restaurant, their green salad with
homemade cumin dressing is the best in town. I’m still craving cucumber
yogurt raita and lassi from my dairy days. Hopefully vegan versions at Madras
Café will be developed momentarily, but until then, homemade ginger
lemonade, mango juice, or their fine selection of beers will complement your
Madras Café is located at 79 2nd Avenue between 4th and 5th Streets. They
are open Monday through Saturday from noon to 11 pm and Sundays noon to 10 pm.
For information contact www.madrascafenyc.com or (212) 254-8002.