Dining » Dining Lead

Indian Winter

Maharaja Madras Café can spice up the frostiest day.

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Potato-stuffed samosas, chicken jhalfrazie, and puffy fried bhatura will put carnivores and veggie-heads alike in a much better mood. - WALTER  NOVAK
  • Walter Novak
  • Potato-stuffed samosas, chicken jhalfrazie, and puffy fried bhatura will put carnivores and veggie-heads alike in a much better mood.

Somewhere, the surf is up, the sky is blue, and bronzed dudes and dudettes flex their pecs beneath the vigilant gaze of Old Man Sol, on a beach of soft, white sand.

Somewhere . . . but not in Cleveland.

No, here on the North Coast, we expect to be up to our armpits in slush, snow, and stuffy noses, trundling forth in our bundled-up best beneath Brillo Pad skies. But if the weather outside is frightful -- and you know it will be, for at least another two months -- the right meal can go a long way toward brightening our disposition.

Something full of exotic fragrances and warm, tropical flavors, say, like our recent chow-downs at Maharaja Madras Café, the unassuming Indian restaurant in Richmond Heights that once was known simply as Maharaja. (Although the transition occurred last April, when restaurateur Manjunatha Sherigar took over, both names still appear on the restaurant's signage. Sherigar, a Pittsburgh resident, is also part owner of the Parma Heights, Columbus, and Pittsburgh Udupi Cafés, incidentally, which specialize in southern Indian vegetarian food.)

Nestled into the well-maintained Hilltop Plaza shopping center, just across the street from Richmond Mall, the 125-seat Madras Café is neat, tidy, and comfortable, with glass-topped tables, well-padded chairs, and Indian music tinkling in the background. Strings of colored lights, framed travel posters, and a richly adorned portrait of Krishna give the space a suitably foreign charm. And wondrous aromas -- curry, cumin, chiles, and more -- eddy through the room like island breezes.

Those enticing fragrances make a mouthwatering introduction to the large menu, with its well-integrated array of North and South Indian specialties, including a host of meat-free options. Fans of the more familiar northern Indian fare, for instance, will be happy to spot old faves like chicken tikka, palak paneer, and potato-and-pea-stuffed samosas. On the other hand, adventurous souls will surely dig the opportunity to tuck into some of the less common southern Indian specialties, including puffy fried bread (bhatura), coconut-and-vegetable curry (avial), and crisp rice "crêpes" stuffed with buttery potatoes and onions, and seasoned with turmeric, fennel, and mustard seed (masala dosa).

For diners who have trouble making choices -- or who, like us, simply yearn to try a taste of everything -- the $7.99 weekday lunch buffet makes a great jumping-off point. While our opinion of most all-you-can-eat spreads is guarded, a first-person investigation of the Madras Café's steam tables yielded a host of tasty finds, ranging from sharp, sour-and-peppery rasam soup to soft, buttery upma, a popular southern riff on -- of all things -- cream of wheat, dolled up with ginger, mustard seed, and coriander.

Among the other buffet standouts, profoundly fragrant sambar -- a highly seasoned lentil "soup" piqued with curry leaves, cumin, red chiles, and veggies -- made a vibrant companion for both idli (absorbent, ivory-colored cakes of ground lentils and rice) and the luscious masala dosa, which were brought to our table, fresh from the kitchen. Tropical-tasting avial was another delicious discovery. Sweet, creamy, with a slowly building heat, the complex dish of squashes, yams, bananas, and coconut originated in Kerala, a small state on the southwest shore of India, and has become a favorite with vegetarians throughout the country.

While the buffet's emphasis is on southern Indian fare, a few northern favorites make appearances, too, including naan, tandoori chicken, lamb vindaloo, vegetable biryani (saffron-scented basmati rice), chana palak (a sturdy stew of chickpeas and spinach), and a slightly oily but well-seasoned version of aloo gobi (cauliflower, peas, and potatoes cooked in a blend of savory spices).

To augment the already up-front flavors, be sure to explore the assortment of high-octane relishes, including onion, coconut, and tamarind chutneys; a palate-popping "mixed pickle," with a riotous interplay of hot, salty, sour, and sweet components; and cool, creamy, but still slightly peppery raita, a zippy blend of yogurt, chopped carrots, and cucumber. A spoonful of mixed pickle, a bite of crisp dosa, and a swoosh of jammy tamarind chutney, say, and Cleveland's wintry grays and browns may morph into jungle greens and ocean blues before your weary eyes. (As for the spicy foods' sinus-clearing properties, consider that a bonus.)

Like all good things, however, the lunch buffet doesn't last forever. By 3 p.m., staffers are clearing the steam tables and closing the doors in preparation for dinner service, which launches at 5 p.m. on weekdays. As with the buffet, the dinner menu focuses on southern Indian cuisine, while still including a solid sampling of popular northern Indian creations. Both vegetarians and carnivores are certain to find much to like, particularly since entrée prices rarely rise above the $12 mark; a couple generally can feast like rajahs for no more than $40.

It's worth budgeting a few more bucks, though, to try a bottle of one of the refreshing Indian lagers that the restaurant offers, including either the 22-ounce Taj Mahal or Flying Horse (both priced at $6.50 per bottle) or the 12-ounce Kingfisher ($3.75). While no serious beer connoisseur is likely to put these lightweight suds at the top of her list, most diners will find that the brews lend a clean, crisp, and even slightly sweet counterpoint to the spicy fare. The café also offers a perfunctory collection of inexpensive wines and a full bar.

Among the menu's 14 starters, both the South Indian sambar vada and the North Indian vegetable samosa drew major raves from our band of travelers. The first -- that highly seasoned lentil "soup," now spooned over firm-but-tender lentil-flour doughnuts -- may be the ultimate in savory comfort foods, with huge taste appeal and a hearty, stick-to-your-ribs intensity. And the second -- an oversized pyramid of perfectly flaky pastry, plumped up with a filling of smashed potatoes, peas, and spices -- is probably the best rendition of this popular app available anywhere in town.

When it came time for entrées, we sadly skipped over tempting-sounding options like the uthappam (sort of like chewy, veggie-studded latkes), the assorted dosa, and the sizzling chicken jhalfrazie, sautéed with onions, tomato, and green pepper, in favor of the chana bhatura, the "don't miss" house specialty. A signature South Indian dish, the creation pairs a giant, hollow loaf of fresh-from-the-fryer bread with a silken stew of chickpeas, garnished with thickly sliced onion, a lemon wedge, and a single, fiery green chile. Steamy, moist, with buttery-crisp edges, the county-fair-worthy bread could easily become a diet-busting habit. But tear off a piece and employ it, like a utensil, to scoop up a mouthful of the bright, aromatic bean stew, and see if visions of summer twilight don't go dancing through your head.

Desserts are scarcely less enchanting, and range from Punjabi-style carrot halwa (sort of a buttery carrot pudding) to Bengali gulab jamun (a duo of toothsome deep-fried cake balls basking in rosewater syrup). Mango ice cream, fruity but not too sweet, made a worthwhile diversion, and we've filed away the ground-almond pudding (badam halwa) as a "must try" for our next visit. But for taste buds still vibrating from the earlier, spicier fare, the best alternative may be the sweetly soothing "Madras special" payasam, a warm, milky broth filled with thin threads of vermicelli and studded with raisins and chopped cashews. Hints of honey, cardamom, and roses wafted up from each spoonful, cosseting our senses and leading a companion rightly to observe, "It's almost like tasting a flower garden!"

In Cleveland, in January, could there be higher praise than that?

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