Venue Review: Woodlands Pure Vegetarian Indian Cuisine
The Charlotte Observer
Take a guy who had a side of beef roasted in salt and drenched with butter for his last big birthday dinner. Put him at Woodlands Pure Vegetarian South Indian Cuisine, where the closest thing to meat is - well, nothing, and put entrees of spinach and cauliflower in front of him. What do you have?
I'll spare you the multiple choice, in favor of the stunning answer: Two empty plates and one believer.
Woodlands prepares the staples of south Indian cuisine (plus a few non-south dishes) with verve and grace and a warm welcome. Its menu goes a fair way toward explaining things to the newcomer, and some servers can finish the job. (Some cannot, so if you need more help, ask.) The food itself is most convincing.
Rice and lentils, and a little wheat, form the backbone of south Indian food, from the steamed patties known as iddly to the massive crispy crepes called dosai to the pancakes dubbed uthappam (say oo-dah-pum).
These are fleshed out by vegetables and the extraordinary palette of Indian seasonings - mustard seeds, cardamom, coriander, chiles, garlic, turmeric, fenugreek, peppercorns and much more, plus foods used in small amounts as seasoning, such as coconut, nuts, fruits and more.
These become fillings, toppings or curries - and remember, "curry" comes from the word "kari," or sauce, and just means a dish with sauce. Woodlands offers 11 curries, some creamy, some not, some spicy-hot, some not.
(If you think all south Indian food is hot, you're probably thinking of the well-known searing curries of Madras. Woodlands' recipes lean more to the western side of south India, where partners Narayan Mogera and Ragavendra Sheregar are from, than to the east, where Madras is. And if you're thinking about tandoors, you've got the wrong end of the country altogether.)
So spinach and cubed yogurt cheese come together with spices, tomato and onion into the curry known as palak paneer, served with dryish white rice and the cool yogurt sauce called raita. Chickpeas combine with a long list of spices into the vibrant chana masala (masala means spices), served with rice and raita or with an enormous puff of fried bread called batura. Baigan bartha is eggplant mashed with tomatoes, onions and spices.
Uthappam are floppy pancakes of rice and lentil flour batter (faintly sourdough), about a foot in diameter. Some might compare them to pizzas, but I suggest thinking of a really good, thin potato pancake. Pleasantly browned onions and peas can top them, or onions and chiles, or shreds of coconut, or you may have one made with chickpea flour.
Dosai lap over their plates, the crunchy edges of these enormous crepes giving way to a softer interior. Thin fillings of potato, onion, spicy chutney or combinations thereof make one of these a meal. Dip them into the accompanying vegetable-soupy sambar or coconut chutney (think a loose paste with lots of flavor).
Iddly has the texture of corn bread, a few inches across and steamed rather than fried. They're offered on Saturdays and Sundays with cashews, carrots and coriander, and called kancheepurum iddly. Yum. Other appetizers are the little fried unsweet "doughnuts" called vada, crisp-pastry-wrapped samosas and the fritters called pakora.
House specialties include mixed-lentil pancakes with vegetables called malabar adai; pongal avial (rice and lentils cooked with spices and served with the coconutty stew known as avial); and gobi Manchurian, a decidedly Chinese-influenced dish of lightly breaded chunks of cauliflower sauteed with lots of ginger and garlic.
If you want to get a quick feel for the cuisine, several combo dinners are offered. The Woodlands special dinner gives you a choice of soup, iddly or vada and dosai or uthappam, while the South Indian and Mysore Royal thalis (samplers) bring tiny silver bowls of many dishes to try, perhaps half a cup per serving.
Co-owner Mogera says the Charlotte clientele is about 75 to 80 percent Indian, with perhaps half of those from south India. He's worked, as has his partner, at a nearly identical restaurant in Maryland; this is "not really a franchise. We have a group of friends who independently own places in different states."
On our visits, the sparely decorated dining room has been filled with large groups and small, many with children, nearly all of which have at least one person (usually more) ordering rapidly and assuredly.
It will take me some time to be able to choose decisively, but I, and others I know, plan to enjoy working up to it.
7128-A Albemarle Road; (704) 569-9193
Food: Four Stars
Setting: Three Stars
Service: Three stars
ENTREE PRICES: $5.50-$6.95.
HOURS: 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, to 10 p.m. Friday-Sunday.
CREDIT CARDS: MC, VI.
RESERVATIONS: Taken anytime Tuesday-Thursday, taken before 7 p.m. Friday-Sunday.
NOTES: All no-smoking; busiest times (with lines at the door) are weekend evenings; no alcohol is served.
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