Monday, April 23, 2007

Mysore Cafe

slide show photos by Aaron Fenster

I once traveled all the way to Udupi in Karnataka, India, in search of the perfect masala dosa. (Udupi is actually the birthplace of masala dosa.) But the opening of the new Mysore Cafe in Uptown means I can find terrific south Indian vegetarian cuisine much closer to home. My own love affair with south Indian vegetarian cuisine began at the Udupi Cafe (now closed) in Columbia Heights, where I was introduced for the first time to iddly (steamed rice patties) and uttapam (a thick pizza-like rice and lentil pancake), and rasam, the hot and sour vegetable sour.
A couple of years ago, on vacation in India, Carol and I found ourselves at the Mangalore train station one morning with six hours to kill between trains. I happened to notice that the town of Udupi was only an hour away, and so we flagged down a taxi and sped off.
Udupi, it turns out, is a temple town, with a famous temple devoted to Lord Krishna, and many striking shrines and religious sculpture. We joined the pilgrims in a long line at the temple, where Krishna is offered food every day. Men were required to remove their shirts. We walked slowly past a shrine with a statue of Krishna, and then received a blessing and a sprinkling of holy water from a Hindu priest. (image of Krishna statue from Udupi, via Wikipedia.)

Afterwards, our bemused driver led us to a small cafe near the temple, where we all ordered masala dosas, enormous crisp pancakes made of rice and lentil flour, filled with curried potatoes.
The Udupi tradition of creating special foods for Krishna has given rise to a whole culinary tradition, which has made Udupi (according to Wikipedia) synonymous with excellent vegetarian cuisine.
The Mysore Cafe, named after another pilgrimage town in Karnataka, offers 16 different kinds of dosas, with fillings ranging from onions and cauliflower to spinach and paneer (homemade cheese). (From what I gather, the use of onions in a dosa isn't strictly kosher; vedic dietary laws prohibit the use of onions and garlic.) Although most of the menu is south Indian, a limited selection of northern dishes is also offered, such as Punjabi mutter paneer (peas and cheese in a tomato onion sauce), vegetable vindaloo from Goa, and navratan dhansak, a Parsi dish popular in Mumbai. My favorites include the chilly gobi, lightly breaded cauliflower in a savory red chili ginger garlic sauce, and the bharwan baigan, stuffed eggplant in a rich and spicy sauce.

One good way to sample the variety Mysore has to offer is to order the Mysore Royal Thali ($14.99), a generous assortment of small dishes served in stainless steel bowls: choice of soup, iddly (rice patties), wada (fried seasoned lentil donuts), basmati rice, chappati (puffy flat bread), sambar and rasam, chickpea curry, pongal (a rice porridge), served with avial - vegetables in a rich cream sauce, and a dessert of payasam - a pudding of noodles cooked in milk with raisins and cashews.
Alternately, go for lunch ($7.99 weekdays, $9.99 weekends) when the buffet offers an extensive sampling of southern and northern specialties, and freshly made masala dosas are included in the price of the meal.

Portions are generous, and prices are extremely reasonable: except for the thali combination plates, nearly all dishes are under $10.
Mysore Cafe, 2819 Hennepin Ave. S., Minneapolis,. Closed Mondays. No alcohol.

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