Udipi Cafe makes up for lack of ambience with vegetarian Indian menu that pleases the palate


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At a recent event at the James Beard Foundation in New York, acclaimed chef and television personality Jacques Pepin declared, "I think all food critics should be blind so they can get to the heart of the matter. Does it taste good?"

Mr. Pepin likely still believes that presentation matters and that a beautiful restaurant adds pleasure to a meal. But he makes a good point. At one time in our recent culinary history, "foodies" were people who delighted in hole-in-the-wall discoveries, and then raced to Chowhound to share them. They disdained fine dining as predictable and soulless. The whole restaurant scene was energized by their quest to dine outside the usual borders, and today exciting food can be found everywhere from multimillion dollar restaurant projects to food trucks. Still, higher-end restaurants -- where elaborate, refined presentation and ambiance are more common -- attract most of the attention, from both diners and the media.


Udipi Cafe

Food:


2 1/2 stars = Very good+
Ratings explained

Service:


1 star = Good
Ratings explained

Atmosphere:


1 star = Good
Ratings explained

Overall:


1 1/2 stars = Good+
Ratings explained

4141 Old William Penn Highway
Monroeville
www.udipicafepittsburgh.com
412-373-5581
  • Hours: Sunday-Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.
  • Basics: Fresh, flavorful vegetarian Indian cuisine with a special focus on dishes from South India.
  • Recommended dishes: Vegetable cutlets, paneer pakoras, idly, dal vada, butter masala dosa, coconut or vegetable uthappa, vegetable makhani, channa batura.
  • Prices: Appetizers, $3.50-8.50, dosai and uthappa, $5.50-8.50; house specials and curries, $6.5-9; breads, $2-4; desserts, $3-5.50; drinks, $1.50-3.50; thali or udipi express (set meals), $13.
  • Summary: Wheelchair accessible; credit cards accepted; reservations accepted on weekdays; limited BYOB (servers do not pour alcohol, bring your own glasses), no corkage.
  • Noise level: low to medium loud.

Udipi Cafe in Monroeville, a vegetarian South Indian restaurant owned and managed by Manjunatha Sherigar since 1996, is a good example of a restaurant where the food so far outstrips the ambiance that it can be difficult to evaluate the restaurant's merit. Yet it ought to be evaluated and more widely appreciated.

Inside Udipi, patrons are greeted with fluorescent lighting, a low ceiling, stacks of paper napkins and cafeteria-style water glasses. But shut your eyes and inhale: The room is filled with the aroma of slow-cooked onions and toasted spices. Udipi Cafe not only serves some of the best Indian food in the region, it also sets an impressive standard for the kind of flavor and excitement possible from skillful vegetarian cookery.

Although the menu can seem overwhelming, it's broken down into useful categories. Start with a snack to take the edge off your appetite. Dal vada, golden brown cakes made from ground up lentils were crisp and earthy ($5), a good contrast to moist and delicate steamed rice flour cakes called idly ($3.50). These were perfect for soaking up the lightly spiced lentil soup (sambar) or spreading with thick, rich coconut chutney, both of which are served with all South Indian dishes. Rasa vada, steamed lentil doughnuts, were plump and well-browned, with a pale white, fluffy interior ($4.75).

Udipi offers North Indian dishes as well, so you'll find the usual samosas and pakoras, served with well-made tamarind and cilantro chutneys. Don't miss the vegetable cutlets, moist, tender cakes made from ground-up vegetables, turned a rich shade of purple by beets ($4.50).

North Indian curries were fragrant with freshly toasted spices. Soft and velvety baingan bartha was flecked with green peas ($8), a sweet accent to the earthy, lightly smoky eggplant. Okra is a divisive vegetable, but it was shown to great effect in bhindi masala, quickly stir-fried then simmered in a savory tomato curry ($8), so the okra was tender and not slimy.

Cheese, nuts and butter add richness to many dishes, like vegetables makhani (a word often translated simply as butter), a tangle of green beans, soy beans, cauliflower and onions bathed in a creamy, slightly mustardy sauce ($8). A fantastic version of malai kofta featured fried vegetable dumplings in a creamy curry thick with cashews and raisins ($8).

Udipi makes its own paneer (a type of fresh cheese). Battered and fried in strips (paneer pakora), it was an excellent vehicle for tamarind chutney, but paneer tikka masala was even better, cubes of the soft, mildly sweet cheese set off by a tart tomato and onion gravy ($9).

The curries are extremely good, but the restaurant's specialty is Indian-style pancakes, thick soft cakes called uthappa, and thin, giant crispy versions called dosa. Sada Dosa are made from a fermented batter of rice and lentils, while rava dosa are made from unfermented semolina flour and lentils. Either way, the batter is spread thin and cooked on a very hot griddle, resulting in a wonderfully light and crisp shell, which can then be wrapped around various fillings. The sada dosa have a flavor almost similar to sourdough, while the rava dosa have lacy, extra-crispy edges.

The sada dosa menu is long, but it consists almost entirely of slight variations. You can get your dosa with potatoes and onions, or hot chutney, or all three. You can get it filled with cheese or minced vegetables, topped with onion or cooked in butter. You can even get it with no filling at all. The rava dosa come plain, or filled with potatoes, sweet raw onions and grilled chiles.

Uthappa are made from the same batter as sada dosa. Poured thick, it cooks up savory and light. They can be ordered with different combinations of diced tomato, carrots, chiles, green peas and sliced onions, or with them all, which is the preferred choice. Real coconut lovers, however, will want to go for the coconut uthappa, flecked with green herbs and grated coconut, topped with more freshly grated coconut and served with dal and coconut chutney ($7).

Other specialty dishes include the channa batura, a tender, layered bread that puffs up as it bakes like a giant balloon ($8.50). Be sure to puncture it carefully to avoid the release of hot air, then tear off pieces to dip in the turmeric-colored chickpea curry that comes with it.

Poori, a similar puffy bread made from whole wheat, and served with a potato, pea, carrot and chickpea curry, was crispier and slightly denser ($7).

Friends introduced us to an off-the-menu item (although it's on the menu on the restaurant's website): Uppuma, essentially warm cream of wheat with lentils, vegetables and spices. Although relatively mild, its soft, creamy texture made it perfect comfort food.

My recent visits were consistent with what I've experienced at Udipi over five years. The food is always very good and often superlative, but the quality does vary a little. Sometimes appetizers arrived sizzling hot, while at other times they seemed to have lingered in the kitchen for too many minutes. Recently, a dosa was pleasurably crisp and savory, but was filled with slightly dry mashed potatoes that seemed to have been shorted their rightful share of onions.

Desserts don't rise to the same level as the savory dishes. Rose and mango ice creams, in particular, tasted slightly artificial ($4). A mango ($3.50) or sweet lassi ($2.50), enjoyed with the meal or after, may be the best option for those who don't favor the uber-sweet flavors of gulab jaman or carrot halwa ($3).

Service is bare-bones, designed to accomplish the essential tasks and nothing else, and servers can often seem a little unfriendly, even toward regular customers.

Udipi's ambiance and service likely will never change, because doing so would invariably increase prices and upset the restaurant's core community. But that doesn't mean that there haven't been any improvements over the years. The restaurant has real silverware instead of plastic, has a website and its menu includes slightly longer (if no less opaque) descriptions of dishes. These changes are likely a result of the slightly higher proportion of non-Indian diners who still make up a clear minority of diners.

Ultimately, the quality of the food makes up for any and all of Udipi's shortcomings. I dare even the most ardent carnivore to eat here and claim to miss the meat. Many of the fancier spots in town could learn a thing or two from Udipi's kitchen about coaxing flavor from the simplest ingredients and using spices to add depth and interest to a dish.

As the number of Pittsburgh's restaurants have grown, and the quality and interest of their offerings has reached new heights, it's getting harder to argue that any restaurant is worth a longer trip. Udipi still is, and it's all about the taste.


China Millman: 412-263-1198 or cmillman@post-gazette.com . Follow her at http://twitter.com/chinamillman .


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