Open for Sunday brunch noon to 4 p.m., for lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., for dinner 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday; 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Saturday. AE, CB, DC, MC, V. Reservations accepted. Prices: Sunday bruch buffet $6.95, main courses at lunch from $3 to $7. Appetizers at dinner $1 to $4, main courses $4.50 to $7; full dinner with wine or beer, plus side dishes, about $15 to $20 a person.
In America we grow up thinking of curry as a golden powdered spice, like cinnamon or coriander. Thus the idea of an Indian vegetarian restaurant sounds like a tune with few notes: mushrooms with curry powder, peas with curry powder, cauliflower with curry powder.
None of it is like anything you would taste at Madurai, the vegetarian offshoot of Tandoor in Georgetown. Rather, at Madurai, you can expect no two dishes to taste alike, have the same color or even have similar textures. And not a single one even resembles the flavor of that golden powder on your shelf. Madurai's is the kind of food that makes you eat more than you intend because in the last bite you discovered a new aroma, or some hauntingly familiar flavor appeared briefly but then disappeared before you could identify it, or you wanted to combine the curry with the aromatic rice and one more dab of lemon pickle just to catch that interplay again.
It is food that challenges the senses to recognize, to unravel the layers of flavor. There is nothing dull or repetitive here.
The restaurant looks a little makeshift -- just a few tables in a long, narrow room that was briefly a Scandinavian restaurant. Thus the hanging lamps are pale bent wood, the tables are the familiar bleached and squared wooden ones we identify as Scandinavian modern. And only few decorative metal platters and other artifacts imply that the restaurant is Indian.
Service is quiet and watchful, intent on being helpful, though what it would be like if the restaurant were crowded is hard to predict. But this is a restaurant worth crowding, for a delicious and intriguing meal can be concocted very reasonably from among the menu's parts.
Start with large bottles of Indian beer, though the wine list is adequate, and the Beringer Fum,e Blanc, at $11.75, mates well with this food.
Even when we have requested the food be made hot it rarely was; in fact, only one dish and a couple of chutneys would have been any threat to even a toddler's palate. Highly seasoned the food may be, but fire-eaters will have to look elsewhere or make their case more strongly when ordering.
Madurai is best enjoyed with a group of four or six who like to dine family style. That way you can try an array of appetizers: fat triangular vegetable samosas in a thin and flaky dough; paneer pakora, which are cubes of bouncy homemade cheese seasoned with black sesame seeds and fried in a chick pea batter that is stolid but absorbs the wonderful creamy coriander chutney; five kinds of dosais. Skip the bajji, for these havy vegetable fritters fried in chick pea batter were unsalvagable by any chutney.
Dosais deserve special attention. They are thin crisp pancakes that make French crepes seem simple-minded. Rice is their base, and they have a crunchy exterior and a light doughiness that makes you think you could eat them endlessly. You can have them plain -- large and paper-thin, they stretch over the ends of the plate when rolled up -- served with chutneys that varied on our visits. Or there are variations: Masla dosais are folded around a bit of filling that includes potatoes, onions and very browned and crunchy cashews. Rava dosais are a bit thicker; ours were served with that pale green coriander-flavored coconut-cream chutney and a soup-like lentil-vegetable combination to spoon on the pancakes. Uthappams are a little thicker, and are imbedded with bits of tomato and peas or hot peppers and peas, mildly seasoned and crisp only at the edges, delicious in the same doughy way that pasta is so irresistible.
While the dosais, a mere $2.25 to $3.25, could be a light meal in themselves, one is inclined to go on to curries, though they are less reliable than the dosais. Gobi alu -- cauliflower and potatoes cooked in butter with tomatoes, spices and fresh ginger -- tasted overstewed; saag paneer-cheese cubes cooked with spinach and spices -- had dense and dry cheese one night, though the spinach accompaniment had a lively and appealing taste. But these were the only disappointing main dishes we encountered. Navratan curry, said to be made of nine vegetables, was full of sweet fragrances and minglings of spices; it was the single best dish. Mushroom curry with tomatoes and onions was also fine, an intriguing mix of seasonings that affect your palate in waves. And vegetable kofta curry was light and soft vegetable balls in a thick, creamy-tasting sauce of tomatoes with ginger and garlic. In each dish coriander, cumin, cinnamon and a dozen more pungent spices tease and hint and play on the tongue. And the rice served with them is also imbued with sweet aromas.
If you order vegetable biriani, be warned that it is a portion far too large for one person. A platter full of browned saffron rice is studded with well-browned cauliflower, onions, cubes of cheese, peas, probably whatever vegetables are available like an Indian version of fried rice.
Breads are a highlight of Indian cooking and a highlight of Madurai. The puri, as puffy as a balloon, has the thinnest of walls and the lightest of textures. Bhatura is also deep-fried and puffed, but a denser and saltier dough, a puff of more substance. Paratha tastes strongly wheaten, a floppy pancake of thin, thin layers of whole wheat. Only fhulka was less than wonderful, it being a dry sort of grilled whole wheat bread.
If breads are the high point, desserts are the low. There is a choice of dense, supersweet and damp carrot pudding or homemade ice cream that tastes of canned milk and graininess, though its nut and rosewater flavor is pleasant.
Beverages are no better, the mango-yogurt drink called Lassi and the milky cardamom-fennel-flavored tea both tasting tinny, the former possibly from canned mango and the latter perhaps from canned milk.
Even without dessert, though, there is little danger of leaving Madurai hungry. The portions are large, and the food invites you to nibble and combine and taste again until you have exceeded your capacity. At Madurai, you are likely to feel you have been served a lot of satisfaction for relatively little money.