With summertime approaching, southern Indian food is a must-try. Rather than the bread-heavy and cream-based curries of the north, the flavors of the south are lighter but still bold and complex: tangy, hot, savory, relying on ingredients like coconut, mustard seeds, rice, lentils, tamarind, chilies, curry leaves—and of course, yogurt to cool things down.
Madras Mahal in Midtown does both northern and southern Indian food, but the latter is its longtime specialty. It carries another distinction: it is Indian vegetarian kosher—the first of its kind in the United States, said owner Nitin Vyas.
Madras Mahal does dosas well, and its authentic southern Indian food—and reasonable prices—makes it the place to go for a southern Indian friend of mine, who loves the weekday buffets featuring a variety of Indian specialties, but especially the ones from the south, which you’d be hard pressed to find in a buffet in Manhattan.
Southern Indian buffet items include dosas, and vadas (think savory donuts, if you will, made of rice and lentil), and idlis (steamed cakes made of lentil and rice flour), served with the requisite savory, sweet, spicy, tangy chutneys.
As the paper dosa ($8.95) arrives at the table, it elicits some oohs and aahs for its theatrical flourish. Measuring about two and a half feet long, a batter of ground rice and lentils is made into an oversized golden crepe and shaped into a cylinder, with lacy, crispy edges, and a wonderful sourdough-like smell and taste.
Then came the question—how to eat it? Dosas come accompanied by a trio of chutneys—a coral-colored tomato chutney that includes 20 spices, a coconut chutney with flecks of citrusy curry leaves, and a light green coriander one—as well as a dish of sambaar, a soup made with lentils and spices, and some masala potatoes, which make for a hearty filling. Just rip off pieces of the dosas and dip them in any way you like.
The paper dosa is great for a small group of family or friends to share; other popular choices are the masala dosa, which comes with the masala potato filling; or the rava masala dosa, made with a wheat base ($8.95); or for a spicy kick, the Mysore masala dosa. ($7.95)
My dinner companions and I shared both dosas and some fried appetizers from the north—one was the chole batura, a spectacular golden puff of fried dough, round as a ball, served with a savory, spicy chickpeas.
We wondered how the dramatic ball appearance was achieved. “We pump it,” joked Vyas, with a twinkle in his eye, explaining the dough is fried and expands like a ball, something not easily achieved.
The chole batura is a familiar mainstay of northern Punjabi street snacks. It tastes wonderful, the way comfort food should, though I can’t say I could handle having it every day. And of course it is fun to eat—who doesn’t want to take a first poke at deflating the big puffball?
We also had a platter of mixed appetizers served with a deep green coriander sauce, which delivered a kick not right away but after a second or two, and a sweet tamarind sauce. A standout for me was the lightly battered and fried eggplant—smooth, creamy, no hint of grease.
The other appetizers completed the assortment of fried Indian comfort food platter: pakora (veggie fritters with a chickpea flour batter) ($4.95), kachori (balls made with chickpeas and green peas, redolent of aniseed) ($4.95), batata vada (fried potatoes, with a savory light batter) ($4.95), and samosas (crispy turnovers filled with a mixture of potatoes and green peas) ($4.95). If you order this, make sure to bring your appetite and several friends to share in the carb overload.
Madras Mahal also carries specialties from the north of India, from Punjab and Gujarat—again, all vegetarian dishes.
The kitchen makes a la carte items to order, so diners can ask for vegan versions of dishes as well.
We had the ever-popular palak paneer, with cubes of paneer cheese and spinach. The version at Madras Mahal is unique in that the spinach is not totally blended into a creamy gravy but rather the leaves kept their shape.
A Restaurant With Heart
Outside its daily restaurant routine, Madras Mahal stepped up to the plate last October after Sandy in a very remarkable way by providing free meals, rather than shutting down or marking up prices. “We had lost electricity, but we had gas,” said Vyas. The kitchen staff cooked by candlelight.
The restaurant did the same for hungry New Yorkers during the blackout of 2003, and the same in the aftermath of 9/11.
Before buying the restaurant from his friend in 1996, owner Vyas used to bring top Bollywood shows to the United States. He still keeps tabs on big-time Bollywood shows and last month, Madras Mahal catered for Amitabh Bachchan (star of “The Great Gatsby”) a Bollywood film legend. Bachchan ordered authentic Gujarati food during his stay in the city.
Lunch Buffet Prices:
104 Lexington Ave.
Sunday through Thursday: 12 p.m.–10 p.m.
Friday & Saturday: 12 p.m.–10:30 p.m.