True, Alethea has been annoyed that she can't get a glass of wine with her dinner. Unlike the space's former tenants, Mother India and Bombay Café, the restaurant has no liquor license. And Zodie thought the décor was unattractive and that the primary waiter -- a sullen, plug-shaped man (New Delhi's answer to actor Bob Hoskins) -- was "incompetent and unfriendly."
Well, well -- there's always a serpent in the garden of culinary Eden, isn't there? Udipi's distinctive Southern Indian menu struck me as reminiscent of Southern American fare: fried breads and pancakes, mushy vegetables and dishes that contained Cream of Wheat, bell peppers or nuts, or had been dipped in batter. At Udipi, an onion dipped in batter and fried is a pakora. It tastes just like a good old Mississippi onion ring, except you dip it in a bright-green mint chutney or a dark, sweet tamarind sauce instead of ketchup. But you get the idea: Southern-style is a universal sensibility, with or without the chicken.
Unlike a pretentious acquaintance of mine who returned from a trip to India several years ago with a suitcase full of saris (which she wears to Johnson County cocktail parties as if she were Auntie Mame) and all of Madhur Jaffrey's cookbooks, I don't pretend to be an expert on Indian cuisine. My introduction to India's distinctive spicy masalas and crêpelike dosais came late. I didn't know diddly about an iddly -- a steamed lentil-and-rice patty -- but when I discovered it, I loved it.
But my friend Bob, the antithesis of a vegan, finds the concept of an all-vegetarian restaurant "completely unnatural." He's less entranced by Indian cooking. "It all looks like brown mush over rice," he gripes.
In fact, Bob's crankiness made one visit to Udipi a night to remember. He looked with horror at most of the dishes while the more discriminating Zodie, a legendarily picky eater, took heaping helpings of everything.
That dinner had started with the Bob Hoskins lookalike arriving at the table and glaring at us. "Can I get you drinks?" he asked through clenched teeth.
"That's the waiter who always gets the orders all wrong," Zodie whispered after the server took off. "He's charming, isn't he?"
As a former waiter who often exhausted himself trying to please customers, I was shocked by this uniquely hostile approach. It wasn't as if this long, whitewashed dining room was bustling on a Friday night, either. In today's economic climate, you might think ass kissing would make for better customer relations than barely contained fury, but not at Udipi. And yes, he did get our orders all wrong.
Still, Zodie; her new fiancé, Mark; Bob and I muddled through. I sipped on a refreshing milk shake pulpy with fresh mango and took bites of hot, greasy pakoras from the appetizer sampler -- an amazing bargain at less than seven bucks. Although the four of us were ravenous, we couldn't finish the generous selection of potato-stuffed samosa, doughnut-shaped lentil cakes called medhu vada and minced vegetable "cutlets."
Bob took polite nibbles of most things but didn't warm to the spicy cuisine until the fried breads arrived: A football-sized puff of yeasty batura rested on one plate; on another were two smaller pieces of unleavened, thinner-skinned wheat flour poori. Tearing into the batura, Bob dipped steaming chunks into little pots of cold yogurt-and-cucumber raita and the aromatic mint chutney.
Bread is spoken in any culinary language, and these big, oily pillows of traditional Punjabi breads disarmed the wary Bob, who saw them as a cross between a dinner roll and a carnival elephant ear: weird but oddly familiar. He loosened up at the arrival of his dinner, a green bell pepper stuffed with minced vegetables and nuts in a buttery-tasting brown sauce.
Wanting something with a little more heat, I had ordered the "semispiced" Seven Jewel Rice, a moderately fiery dish of saffron-yellow basmati rice and chopped carrots, onion, peppers and peas, and further bulked up with crunchy cashews. Zodie, who typically avoids cheese for health rather than political reasons, surprised me by ordering the cheesy malai kofta. This dish, usually bland in other Indian restaurants, has some bite at Udipi. She tackled the plump balls of cheese, dried fruits and potatoes with relish. "The sauce is slightly sweet and so creamy and smooth you almost think it might really have some cream in it," she said. The menu claimed "home-made cottage cheese" was an ingredient; Zodie assumed that it had been made with goat's milk, which she can tolerate. ("It's regular cow's milk, but we add vinegar to it," one of the more pleasant servers told me later, out of Zodie's earshot -- but when I passed on this bit of information, Zodie didn't believe it anyway.)
Anyone who's green-pea intolerant should be forewarned. This staple of Southern American gardens as well as their Southern Indian counterparts is in almost every dish at Udipi, from the fried samosa to the mutter makhani khajoo. Mark enjoyed that combination of peas, cashews and a punchy tomato sauce over a mound of white rice.
The showiest dish in the joint is a giant golden crêpe, the paper masala dosai. It's about 17 inches wide but is rolled up like a diploma around a surprisingly small dollop of starchy potatoes and onion. Though this type of bread scores in the visual category, it's not particularly spectacular tastewise. I much preferred the doughier, baked whole-wheat paratha bread.
We didn't get a chance to look at the menu's dessert selections; the minute we started lingering over our dinner plates, Old Grumpy hurried out with the check. He cracked his first and only smile when I handed him a credit card.
"I can't decide who was happier when we left," Bob said later. "Me or the waiter."
I returned a few days later to try out Udipi's well-laden and carefully maintained lunch buffet, which had a wonderful assortment of chutneys, breads, paneers and curries displayed on a shiny steam table. There was one oddball offering: Next to a vat of a coriander-scented vegetable curry sat a heap of round, toasted breads -- the bottom halves of all-American hamburger buns.
Yet another Southern American touch at this all-vegetarian Indian buffet. I would have asked for a little honey, but that same nasty waiter -- his disposition certainly no sweeter this time around -- was still scowling at me. What a Udipi stick.