UDIPI CAFE | Dining Reviews | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

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UDIPI CAFE

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When arriving at Udipi, my companion and I quite fortuitously ran into a couple we knew and who agreed to share a table. The menu was filled with dishes I'd never tried before, and the more hands on deck, the better. In fact, one gentleman was a frequent diner there and his expertise was most helpful in choosing among the many selections.

We began with a platter of assorted appetizers -- a real bargain at $5.99 -- and sure to please those who think "appetizer" is synonymous with "deep-fried." In principle, I agree such associations are indicative of poor eating habits, but in practice, I love big plates of fried shapes as much as the next person. Especially when there are four different dipping sauces to try -- green chili, coconut chutney, a sweet, dark fruit puree and a slightly spicy mixed-vegetable dip. The selections included: onion rings; a "lentil donut" (which was not a donut made of compressed lentils, but of lentil flour, so its appearance, texture and taste was quite similar to a Western cake donut); a samosa (a triangular wedge of flaky pastry stuffed with potatoes, onions and peas); a vegetable and lentil dumpling; and a steamed rice and lentil patty that was very light, tender and spongy. I'd also ordered rasam, a traditional South Indian soup. It was a tasty vegetable broth -- a little sweet and a little tangy, a little spicy, with chopped tomatoes and onions.

Our selection of entrees and sides arrived as they were cooked, which was good: There wasn't that much room on the table but this way each dish got a little quality time. The vegetable korma was a medley of potatoes, green beans, cauliflower, peas, lima beans and carrots cooked in spicy rich coconut milk. The other curry dish was baigan bartha, a mixture of mashed eggplant, onions, peas and tomatoes. The vegetable korma had a little heat to it, which was tempered well by its natural foil, the cool creamy raita (chopped cucumbers and carrots in a coriander-and-yogurt sauce). Both these dishes were accompanied by a large dish of fluffy, extra-long rice.

Next up came the dosai, a thin rice-flour crepe at least 12 inches in diameter. Udipi offers a dozen different variations with various fillings and toppings, most of which were combinations of potatoes, onions and spices. I ordered the masala dosai, in which the wafer-thin golden-brown crepe was folded in half over a filling of mashed potatoes and onions. The potato mixture lay in one small pile, so I simply broke off outer sections of the dosai and used them to scoop up more filling.

I especially enjoyed the last two dishes we received. The channa batura was a dish of slow-cooked garbanzo beans in a tomato sauce seasoned with spices and onions. (It also came with a garnish of a thick raw onion slice that nobody dared to eat.) The beans were excellent by themselves and also did well wrapped in some of the dosai crepe. The dish had come with batura, a deep-fried bread that when presented was reminiscent of a beach ball -- almost perfectly round and hollow beneath its thin skin. My companions loved the batura, but I found it a little too greasy.

The rice specialty -- lemon rice -- was an entree-sized portion of vividly yellow rice strewn with toasted cashews, dried red chilis, mustard seeds and chopped coriander. It tasted only faintly of lemon (and this may have been accentuated by its wild color); what it did taste of was spicy popcorn. The combination of butter, toasted nuts and the chewy starchiness of the rice somehow added up to this surprising and quite tasty association.

The Udipi Café is an unassuming place -- a few simple booths and tables. There's little in the way of decor. Food is served on a selection of Melmac and china plates, but there's no metal flatware. Each table is set with containers of plastic knifes, forks and spoons. (I noticed that we inadvertently ended up using several sets of plastic cutlery each, so while this may save some washing-up time, it can't be very cost-effective.) When food is good and cheap, I'm not so fussy about plastic forks, though the sharing of food at our table proved a bit awkward, as we had to use teaspoons as serving spoons.

It can be a trifle tricky to get onto Old William Penn Highway (at night, this turnoff from Rodi Road is not well marked; follow signs for the SV Temple) but once en route through the windy darkness, watch for the highly visible concrete plant. The Udipi Café is adjacent. * * *

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