Carnivore's Holiday: Madras Pavilion

A 10-part adventure on the other side of the food chain
Part 9: Madras Pavilion
9025 Research Blvd, No. 100. 512-719-5575,
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. Monday-Friday (until 10 p.m. Friday). 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday-Sunday. Buffet runs daily until 3 p.m.
By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 06.20.12
India’s subcontinental treasure chest of spices makes Indian food an easy vegetarian sell. With its lunch buffet ($8.99 weekdays, $10.99 weekends), Madras Pavilion offers a tour of the southern Indian pantheon. But it’s a self-guided tour, one for which I enlisted the company of an Indian friend who eats there a couple of times a week, a friend who swears by Madras Pavilion because they start from scratch. They grind their own lentils, blend their own chutneys and culture their own yogurt. And in true symmetry from southern India to the southern United States, they like things spicy and they’re not afraid of frying.
What you’re eating: Doing the all-you-can-eat shuffle down the buffet line, you might skip right over the soup. Don’t do that, even if the reddish-brown base makes the rasam and sambar look the same, parked side-by-side in soup wells next to the Carbohydrate Row of breads. There’s a reason for that proximity: dipping, dunking, dropping in. Rasam is the thinner of the two soups, a kind of hot-and-sour roil of tamarind, tomato and pepper, a carrier for steamed rice-and-lentil patties called iddly, like thick pancakes or air-fluffed biscuits. Tear off pieces and drop them in like dumplings. Same goes for the crispy fried lentil patties called medhu vada.
If your tastes turn more toward vegetable stew, sambar brings a thicker lentil base to the table. It’s a natural partner for the rice-and-lentil crepes called dosas. My guest comes for the sada dosa ($6.99), as big around as a hand-flown pizza but as thin as parchment paper cooked crisp, then tri-folded and served with sambar and chutney on the side. This is what he comes for, not the buffet, because he doesn’t want that much food but he’s too polite to say it. He tears off pieces of the crepe for a dunk in the sambar and the chutney, which is thick and almost chalky with the light grit of coconut. The dosa they bring to me is about half the size of the sada dosa, folded with a baby-bump of soft potato and onion inside. The smaller dosa is included in the buffet price, but it’s not on the serving line. You have to ask for it.
My friend also recommended a yogurt-and-rice dish called bagala bath. It’s the texture of rice pudding, spiked with dried red chile, mustard seed and fenugreek. So different from raita, the cucumber-yogurt dip I’m more familiar with. Add sugar and you’d have a dessert with devilish savory undercurrents. One more tip from my Indian friend: That toasted fennel seed in the jar on the way out the door? It’s there to settle your stomach and freshen your breath. Your office thanks you.
What you’re drinking: Masala cha ($1.99). Cha, not chai. And not chai tea, which is like saying “tea tea.” This Indian cha is a soft fire of aromatics, finished with milk and in the case of my Indian guest, a few shakes of pepper and a half-dozen packets of sugar.  It’s a sweet-on-sweet assault with a dessert called gulab jamun, fried balls of dried milk and flour and cottage cheese steeped in rose water and cardamom syrup. The texture is like a cross between a doughnut hole and the inside windings of a boiled golfball. But much better tasting.
Other options: After the rasam, sambar, dosa, iddly and bagala bath, I might have called it a day. But this is a buffet and this is America, so plates three and four carried my usual Indian expectations of curry and basmati rice with peas, of cheese curds in buttery masala sauce, of naan bread from a tandoori oven, even a stir-fried version of iddly in little cubes like tofu in a spicy red sauce. But none of it was as satisfying as my friend’s southern Indian crash course.
(TOP PHOTO: A Madras Pavilion lunch buffet plate might include, clockwise from left: Paneer butter masala, vegetable curry, sambar, rice pulav and stir-fried iddly. INSET PHOTOS, from left: Breads include iddly, medhu vada, naan and dosa; condiments from the buffet include salad and onion and coconut chutneys; for dessert, sugary fried gulab jamun. BELOW: Madras Pavilion is part of the Colonnade shopping center on Research Boulevard. Photos by Mike Sutter  © Fed Man Walking)