Restaurant Reviews

Mad About Madras

If what cookbook authors Carol Selva Rajah and Priya Wickramasinghe propose in The Food of India is true -- that our Indian restaurants almost unilaterally offer a "very successful [Punjabi] menu formula" -- then call Madras Café the exception that proves the rule.

The approach is simple in this 40-seat, two-month-old restaurant, located at the far end of a strip mall on a semi-unsavory stretch of Powerline Road in Pompano Beach: Present customers with a wide array of Indian dishes that range the entire subcontinent, with the emphasis on the depths and complexities of the recipes that spring from the south. Meen molee (fish stew) from Kerala, the southwestern coastal state. Pepper-driven chicken chettinad- or madras-style from Tamil Nadu, India's tip. Tamarind rice from Andhra Pradesh. Sambar (red lentil curry) from Karnataka, to go with the region's savory steamed rice cakes called idlis. And then, a smattering of more familiar items, like chicken tikka, tandoori, and biryani -- you know, the usual "Punjabi" stuff.

I'm surprised some other restaurateur hasn't tried this more-diverse philosophy. Broward County has a sizeable Indian community whose members continually search for dining options, along with a growing number of non-Indian addicts who avidly look for locales. A recent Saturday evening at Madras proved that both populations are eager to try this newest addition to the Palm Plaza; by the time my party departed the eatery, every interior table had been taken, and the few sidewalk ones, despite their proximity to a neighboring strip joint, were occupied by those waiting for take-out.

Thus, there's nothing wrong with the concept. Yet despite its potential, Madras Café gets caught up at execution.

Part of the difficulty stems from understaffing. Madras Café's advertising claims a "trained professional staff." Don't believe it. Only one waiter was available to serve the entire restaurant, and while a hostess helped him by seating patrons, pouring ice water, and running interference, she was a self-confessed clueless wonder when it came to Indian cuisine. Therefore, all questions posed to her -- such as what exactly is uthapam? -- had to be answered by the waiter, who was overwhelmed with taking orders and delivering food.

Not that the fare was so expediently put out. Given the two hours it took us to receive two courses, my gut instinct tells me that the number of waiters was equivalent to the number of cooks. Sorry, make that "trained master chefs." Even the time it took for the server to bring an unfamiliar but delicious Indian beer, a lemony Himalayan Blue lager, had us wondering if he'd run off to the closest Indian liquor store for it.

Nor did all the dishes taste à la minute. Dhai vada, or lentil donuts, for example, were hard and stale, as if deep-fried the day before. Though pleasantly nutty, this savory appetizer needed a good long soak in the yogurt-coriander sauce that napped it to make it fork-acceptable. On the other hand, breads such as the whole-wheat tandoori roti were too soggy, while triangles of naan had holes burnt into them. Of the breads we sampled, the malabar paratha, a slightly thicker whole-wheat pancake cut into wedges, appeared the sturdiest and most consistent.

Texturally, southern Indian dishes have a broad range, in large part due to the use of rice and lentils that have been milled into flour or beaten into batter. Both go into the fermented dough for dosa, a crisp crèpe stuffed with anything from potatoes and onions to spinach. These tend to be served in large portions but are light on the appetite, so order accordingly. The idli, a steamed, fermented rice cake often consumed for breakfast with sweet chutneys like mango or coconut, is a good, substantial pairing. At Madras, the idli is a savory version, doused with mildly spiced, soupy sambar.

The sambar is also an option for smothering the vada, and accompanies the varieties of uthapam. Described on the menu as an "Indian pizza with various toppings," an uthapam is more like an idli that has been rolled flat. Our vegetable uthapam, dotted with what looked like a mix of commercially frozen corn, carrots, and string beans, was a trifle bland. But you can raise the spice volume by adding a superbly hot onion-chili pepper relish.

Indeed, the southern Indians are fond of robust, oil-fired spices that are cooked first, then ground (northern Indians do the opposite). Perhaps this is why the meal-starting, complimentary pappadam and chutneys, especially the onion-tomato, were so vibrant that a dish of raita, cooling yogurt-cucumber dip, was a necessity. Unfortunately, the raita was watery and lacked discernible cucumber flavor. But southern Indians are more known for cooking with coconut milk than yogurt, a fact that should steer patrons toward garden vegetable combinations like the avial or the chicken Madras, both of which are stewed in that nectar.

Likewise, southern Indian cuisine does not utilize the marinating, grilling, and roasting techniques that were adopted from the Turks and Persians, as those in the north did. This could account for why the chicken tikka, a poultry dish that is marinated in yogurt and spices and then roasted in a clay oven, was too soft and overly salted.

Overall, the southern dishes tend to warrant more focus, if only for the seafood that the coastal regions are fond of employing. At Madras, the shrimp saag, a tangle of large shrimp smothered in creamed spinach, was wonderfully fresh and satisfying. While most Indian restaurants carry this dish in the lamb version, it's rare here in the United States to find it successfully done with shrimp.

Madras Café has other virtues: a clean, pretty interior with coral accents and cane-back chairs, a kids' menu, lunch boxes for quick day-time take-out, and a series of lunch and dinner buffets that highlight different regional specialties, depending on the day. Not to mention a reasonable check average and, if you have the patience, a sweet ending of payasam, Indian rice pudding thickened with coconut. Should the service and preparation of dishes from all the regions that comprise India be sharpened, the potential for a truly unique Indian dining experience is here.