Rasam Spicy Soup, Thali Combo Platter, Udupi Special Spring Dosa
Occupation: Public Health Professional
Favorite Restaurant: Udupi Palace
Reviewed Udupi Palace: Monday, September 18, 2006
One of my all time favorite cuisines is South Asian cuisine. It is a well-practiced art form, juxtaposing intense flavors with a buttery smoothness and creating unforgettable feasts. With such variety, state to state, region to region, it continually surprises me that most restaurants in the Bay Area serve Northern, Punjabi-style cuisine only. While, I can no doubt appreciate the spicy, hot, oiled veggies and meats and a nice naan, fresh from the tandoor oven, there is so much more to experience.
Ever so briefly, a Gujarati-run restaurant opened at 6th and Market in San Francisco. For almost six months, Gujarati regional dishes such as kadhi (yogurt and chickpea flour soup), dhokla (steamer chickpea flour snack), moong dahl, and freshly made roti could be enjoyed. After only a brief spell however, the restaurant had new ownership and was shortly serving Punjabi-style food, just like everywhere else. Then to my utter delight, I discovered Udupi Palace.
Situated smartly on the corner of Martin Luther King Boulevard and University Avenue in Berkeley, Udupi Palace is a clean café style restaurant with many windows allowing ample natural light during the day. There is no cheesy décor and they usually steer clear of incense, but one time I do recall a heavy, smoky rose scent coloring the meal. The restaurant has natural plastered walls and simple wood tables and chairs. It reminds me of a new canvas ready to receive a brilliant stroke of color. Most importantly, Udupi Palace is a refreshing break from the norm, offering a distinctive selection of South Indian dishes.
Having traveled through South India, I can also say that the food offered is mostly authentic and well made. I say “mostly,” because there does seem to be the occasional deviation in their quality. For example, on a recent visit I encountered a strange dessert of loose strawberry flavored yogurt with pineapple chucks instead of the more common payasam (rice pudding).
All things considered, you can typically enjoy a simple and delicious iddly (steamed patties of rice and black lentil), with sambar (spicy soup for iddly), or dosa (Indian crepe), stuffed with seasoned potatoes and topped with fresh coconut chutney. Better yet, try a bit of everything with a full thali. The thali comes with an abundance of sampler size portions of fresh seasonal vegetables in spicy masalas, both creamy and dry varieties, rasam (spicy soup), rice puloas (fried rice), a platter of poori (type of flat bread), papads (lentil cracker), and basmati rice on the side.
Oh, and did I mention? Udupi is fully vegetarian. Each time I have gone I have encountered either a once-familiar vegetable prepared in a unique manner, or a vegetable or legume I had yet to try. I, myself, enjoy the occasional meat dish but truly appreciate the diversity and flavor of these vegetarian dishes. I have never left Udupi dissatisfied.
Udupi is without a doubt for the adventurous, imaginative, and by all means, for the pennywise. While Udupi Palace has rare and lavish offerings, their prices are not in the least extravagant. You can experience a full variety of cuisine from South India and have a cup of chai or Madras coffee for under fifteen dollars, that’s including tax and tip. So put down your chicken tikka masala just this once and check out this true gem of the East Bay.
Occupation: Education Program Director
Location: San Francisco
Favorite Restaurant: Canto do Brasil
Reviewed Udupi Palace: Tuesday, September 19, 2006
I walked over to Udupi Palace Restaurant after meeting with some of my students at UC Berkeley. One of them recommended that I try spring dosa, which is a potato-and-pea combo wrapped in a crepe. I decided to take her advice, especially because I could compare the dosa at Udupi Palace to the ones I’d eaten at a hip new restaurant near my apartment.
The ambience is that of a typical startup, low-cost, dining joint: sparsely decorated, simply lit, and adorned with religious icons and movie posters signaling a certain authenticity, appealing to the customers for whom the cuisine represents home. And typical for me, I arrived after the lunch hour rush (I like quick service!). There were only a few diners present, and I was comforted by my students’ comments and the Zagat survey reviews prominently posted on the restaurant windows. I was also excited by the all-vegetarian menu, which meant that I –- even as a fish and poultry eater –- could have anything!
I wasn’t in the mood for a heavy lunch, so I tried the rasam, a peppery soup made from tamarind, tomato, ginger, and coriander. Not knowing that the lunch entrée would also be served with soup, I chowed down on the spicy-hot rasam, especially loving the combination of tamarind and tomato, which complemented and balanced each other well. Fortunately, the server had brought a pitcher of water to the table, because I needed it to cool my palate.
Right on cue, the server appeared with my entrée, the Udupi Special Spring Dosa. When he arrived at the table, my eyes popped at the size of the dosas –- cut in half, each portion was a foot long, served with a side of sambar (a spicy lentil soup), coconut chutney, and tomato chutney. I didn’t think I’d be able to finish, but once I dug into the dosas, I couldn’t stop! The crepe was stuffed with shredded cabbage (I think!), chopped red onions, creamy potatoes, and peas. I stopped worrying about what havoc the red onions would wreak on my post-lunch breath and enjoyed how they enhanced the potatoes and peas with an extra zing, the kind of zestiness (as opposed to spiciness) that really complemented the demure potatoes and peas. Speaking of potatoes, they were little puffs of heaven! Very light, creamy, and cooked all the way through -– not a Thanksgiving lump among them.
I wish that the crêpes would have been a little lighter (or even springier, like East African injera bread); my crêpes was a little on the crunchy side, which made it hard to cut cleanly with a knife. So I gave up cutting and started tearing the dosa and dipping it into the fantastic sides. I couldn’t get enough of the tomato chutney in particular, which wasn’t anything fancy but was perfectly and simply flavorful. I also loved the sambar soup, made from lentils and a tomato base. I forget how much I enjoy lentils until they’re on the plate in front of me; they’re like the great forgotten legume. Next time, I’ll try another appetizer instead of having both rasam and sambar soups (even though I ate both of them), since the sambar automatically comes with the dosa, and can be eaten as a soup or as a dipping sauce for the dosa; I ate it both ways, and it was delicious.
I left Udupi Palace feeling full and happy, but not weighed down, since the meal was made from relatively light ingredients. I’ll definitely return to Udupi while in the East Bay, and will recommend it to others. I think I enjoyed its simplicity and “down-hominess” more than the trendy new dosa place in my San Francisco neighborhood. I’ll just remember to bring plenty of minty gum so that I can relax and enjoy the red onions.
Occupation: Independent Animator
Location: Mill Valley
Favorite Restaurant: Buckeye Roadhouse
Reviewed Udupi Palace: Tuesday, September 12, 2006
My dining partner and I had a wonderful experience at Udupi Palace in Berkeley. We arrived for a mid-afternoon lunch, and the dining room was practically empty. The décor is quite stark and minimal with Formica tabletops and tubular steel chairs. The big, sunny, picture windows look out over the bustling street tableau that is campus-adjacent Berkeley. A commercial radio station was playing somewhat unobtrusively in the background as we were politely guided to our seats.
I don’t eat Southern Indian food regularly, so I was a bit swamped looking at the menu. Eyeing some fellow diners in close proximity, I noticed that they were all eating the same sampler platter. I asked my server what everyone was having and he pointed silently to the Thali Combo Platter (which was the chef’s choice). He was having quite a bit of trouble speaking Englishm so I plainly asked if the Thali included any curry and he said, “No.” “OK,” I thought, “Let’s sample the chef’s combo and an order of mixed vegetable curry as a nice dish to ‘go to.’” We were excited to try some starters, so we ordered them and a mug of warm, spicy, Masala tea while we waited. The tea was excellent. Think subtle Chai with a teensy grind of clove. It was interesting all the way to the bottom of the mug.
We started with tomato soup and the traditional rasam spicy soup. I was warned by my server that the rasam was going to be intense, and it certainly was. It was bursting with powerful flavor combinations that my tongue had never before experienced in such a concert; sweet, salty, bitter, and peppery all at the same time. It was not overpoweringly hot, like a habanero chile, rather it was a screaming auditorium of flavor conversations all speaking at high pitch. I enjoyed the soup but was hesitant to finish the whole bowl for fear that these spices would overpower the rest of my meal. I needn’t have worried. The spices didn’t linger an uncomfortably long time. The tomato soup was another wonderful surprise. It masterfully melded many subtle spices in a thick and randy broth. I would gladly return to Udupi Palace just to savor a bowl of this creamy tomato soup. The samosas on the other hand were fine, though they lacked an interesting vegetal texture after a few bites. Though the potato filling (with an errant pea here and there) was certainly tasty, and the fried dough fresh and light, but ultimately I was bored with the one-note textures. Would it have KILLED them to add in a grated carrot or two?
Our Thali combo was served on a large stainless steel platter featuring six or eight small steel bowls filled with various sauces, mini-entrées, and rice. We were also served two sides of bread. One was a Chana Batura; small loaf of puffed fried bread, and the other a flat, thin, cracker-ish salty bread. It was fun to dip the breads and rice into the different sauces. We had a blast deciding how to combine the different tastes, though after a while we settled into concentrating on a few favorites. There was a wonderful mixture of green beans, curried rice, and corn. This was offset by a surprisingly sweet tapioca-like sauce featuring chilled coconut. Marvelous! The Thali also featured a few curries, and we were quite surprised by this. The flavors were fresh and very interesting. But they were the same dishes as the mixed vegetable curry plate that we’d also ordered as a complementary main dish. It was a disappointing discovery when we realized that we’d ordered so redundantly. Eventually we came to understand that Udupi Palace is famous for its dosas -– a fried pancake stuffed with curry and more -– and we felt a bit cheated that our server hadn’t made the effort to point this out when we’d distinctly asked for guidance with the menu.
Feeling very comfortable in the able hands of the restaurant’s kitchen, we ventured to the dessert menu in search of some more interesting Southern Indian flavors. The lunch desserts were hit and miss. We ordered both the Galab Jamin: fried biscuit balls in a honey sauce, and the Carrot Halwa: a sweet grated carrot dish that was served warm with golden raisins. The honey balls were lackluster and felt too heavy after a meal of rice and thick sauces. But the carrots were interesting enough that, though we didn’t finish the portion, we were glad to have tried them. They were drenched in a sweet clarified butter sauce, which though delicious, was a bit too indulgent for me and my weight-conscious conscience.
Udupi Palace was a wonderful find, and I plan to return very soon to sample their dosas and the many daily specials.