Good Taste: Pongal

Original Article Published On The Jerusalem Post

Pongal 110 Lexington Ave., Manhattan, (212) 696-9458 Madras Mahal 104 Lexington Ave., Tel. (212) 684-4010 Udipi Palace, 103 Lexington Ave. Tel. (212) 889-3477.

Walking down Lexington Ave. between 28th and 27th streets in New York, one might reasonably ask, “How is this kosher vegetarian Southern Indian restaurant different from the others on the block?” The truth is that they are pretty much the same, and all have kashrut supervision, attracting a mix of southern Indians, yeshivah students and locals from the Murray Hill neighborhood.

Madras Mahal, the oldest of the three, has been serving southern Indian dishes along with fare from Punjab, in the north, and Gujarat, in western India, for nine years. Slow-moving waiters shuttle about the narrow restaurant, filling shiny metal cups with water, clearing our papadam appetizer (spiced thin lentil wafers, served with chutney), and serving specialties like its masala dosai — spiced onion, potato and other vegetables in a two-foot-long fried crepe.

We enjoyed two curries: alu gobi (cauliflower with tomato and mild spices) and chana masala (chickpeas with onion and cilantro), served over perfectly cooked white basmati rice.

Pongal, with nicer dcor, warns diners on its menu that “our chefs require 20 or 25 minutes.” The food is worth the wait. I’m a sucker for the masala cashew nuts (fried and spicy) and the vegetable pullav (fragrant rice cooked with vegetables and mild spices). For those who want to counter the spicy dishes, order a bland item or two, like idly (steamed puffy cakes of lentil and rice) or vadai (fried lentil donuts).

Udipi Palace is more spacious, but its interior is more casual, typical of a fast-food joint. The pakora appetizers (chopped fresh spinach-and-onion fritters coated with chickpea flour) were crunchy but somewhat greasy, while the potato masala and accompanying sambar (vegetable sauce) were well-spiced but not overpowering.

If the ambience varies slightly, the food — and the prices — are remarkably similar in the three restaurants.

Prices range from $3.95 to $5.95 for appetizers, $5.95-$8.95 for dosai and $8.95 for curries. All in all, a welcome break from more familiar kosher fare.

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