By Jamie Swinnerton
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By Cafe Society
By Juliet Wittman
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At Masalaa, man could almost live on bread alone. About half of the dishes at this vegetarian restaurant feature some sort of bready base — a pancake or a biscuit — and those are among my favorites. Ravi Kumar and Ehmad Ansari, two strict vegetarians, opened this restaurant in an Aurora strip mall close to a decade ago, and while some specialties from the north, as well as Indo-Chinese offerings, have crept onto the list, the focus is definitely on southern India. That focus begins with the dosa, a flat, crisp pancake made from a lightly fermented mix of rice and black lentils. The final product resembles neither ingredient; it looks more like a stiff, rolled crepe and has a slightly sour essence that could be mistaken for cheesiness (there's no cheese in the recipe, though).
I love dosas, and began my lunch at Masalaa last week with the Mysore masala version, which features a soft blend of potatoes and onions in the center. I scooped up the mixture with strips of dosa, then alternately dipped the bites in cool coconut chutney and tangy tomato chutney. (I skipped Masalaa's thin sambal; the pigeon pea stew needed more kick.) After that came an order of idly, the doughy, steamed rice biscuits eaten as snacks in southern India. They were perfect for sopping up more of the chutneys. For my next course, I pondered the uthappam — which uses the dosa base kind of like a pizza crust, topped here with cilantro and tomato or dried fruit and butter or cheese and chiles — and also the aloo paratha, described as a fried bread stuffed with potatoes and served with pickles and yogurt. Then I spotted the flat, cracker-like roti (called chapati at Masalaa) on another table and thought about that.
But I finally decided that I'd starched up enough, and instead opted for the gobi masala, one of Masalaa's many stellar vegetable dishes. The cauliflower had been cooked in a thick garlic- and ginger-infused bath of tomatoes and onions, and the stew finished with the fresh bite of cilantro and chiles. Spooned over basmati rice, it was hearty and satisfying.
Still, I was tempted to ask for an order of bread to go.