28233 Ford Road, Garden City
Most entrees: $5-$6
Eats: 3 stars / Experience: 3 stars
As we were discussing Mysore Woodlands on the way home the other night, my partner pointed out to me that I give a rating of "eats, three stars/experience, three stars" to a pretty broad swath of restaurants, and that the things I say about them in the privacy of my own home vary widely. True. "Three-and-three" is a wide category, which is why you should always take the time to read the review. It means "pretty good, but I’d think twice about recommending it to my friends." Or "mixed – some dishes great, some subpar." Or "not bad, but I probably wouldn’t go back unless I was in the neighborhood."
In Mysore Woodlands’ case, it means "different and interesting – worth trying – but it doesn’t taste as good (to me) as Indian food in other restaurants." My guess is that this isn’t because Mysore Woodlands is South Indian (most restaurants around here are Bengali or perhaps Bangladeshi), or because it’s "pure vegetarian," but because of the particular chef.
The signature South Indian food is the dosa, a huge pancake made of flour from rice and fermented lentils, then stuffed, then eaten with the hands. The dishes are more likely to be vegetarian than in other regions (except in Karnataka, the home state of my dining companion, Renuka, where the local specialty is wild boar). Chilies, cilantro, rice and coconut are mainstays of the cuisine.
The original Mysore Woodlands is a hotel in Karnataka that’s famous for its food. The Garden City location offers 17 dosas, larger than a dinner plate, folded cornucopia-style and stuffed with potatoes, onions, chutney, cheese, spinach and/or chilies. Renuka liked the cheese version, though I thought the cheese looked strangely orange.
I ordered an onion and hot chili uthappam, which is similar to a dosa, but the vegetables are embedded in the dough. It’s hot and tasty, and comes with three chutneys: coconut, red pepper and coconut, and, my favorite, fried tomato and garlic.
I also recommend the rasam, which I would call "spice soup." It’s a red-brown broth with fried tomatoes, coriander seeds and turmeric. The reason I know this is that owner Gamesan Naidu is exceptionally gracious about explaining the dishes and in general dancing attendance on his guests.
For appetizers, either of the assortments will get you a goodly amount of fried delicacies. Our pakora plate contained 11 items, including onion, pepper, potato and eggplant, with a green coconut sauce. The Mysore Special Assortment includes lentil flour fritters (vada), a samosa with a thick coating, a "cutlet," which is a too-crisp corn cake, and a bland paneer (cottage cheese) pakora. One of the sauces is ketchup!
Dishes that are more like an entrée fall in the curry column. I found the chana (chick peas) masala a little sweet. Avial is vegetables with more coconut. Better is morkuzahambu (you can just call it "#51"). Based on buttermilk and largely liquid, it’s a striking lemon yellow, including the lightly fried okra. It goes over rice.
Drinks are often a special treat in an Indian restaurant, but I found the brilliant-coral mango lassi that I always order too sweet. Badam kheer is made with ground almonds and boiled milk, Naidu told us, and it tastes good, but the texture is off-putting, because the almonds aren’t ground enough. You can feel each grain going down.
The best way to get a feel for the range of dishes is to order a thali, or platter, for $10 or $11. You’ll get soup (rasam or tomato), appetizers, stark-white homemade yogurt, rice, several vegetable dishes like avial, and dessert.
After dinner, if you want to be bewildered, wander into the India Grocery a couple of doors down. It stocks every kind of flour known to woman, boil-in-bag panak paneer and avial, English cookies, mustard oil (a South Indian frying medium), castor oil and "pure cow ghee" in a can. I’ve noticed before, in South Asian grocery stores, that the wares are just as likely to come from Canada or Amsterdam as from the mother country, testifying to the power of the diaspora.
If you’ve been responsible and read this whole review before making up your mind, here’s one more piece of info: An Indian friend of mine says Mysore Woodlands is better than Priya, that perennial Metro Times readers’ favorite, which also serves southern dishes. "It’s like eating in someone’s kitchen," he says admiringly.
Jane Slaughter dines for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.