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Vegetarians in Paradise

 Vegetarian Restaurant Review

R: While Los Angeles is home to numerous Indian restaurants, those specializing in the unique cuisine of Southern India are a rarity. Still uncommon is the ALL-VEGETARIAN Indian restaurant serving the intriguing foods of India's southern region.

The fortunate residents of the San Fernando Valley can now enjoy the all-vegetarian menu to the max at Woodlands, a large restaurant with a cordial staff that greets diners with welcoming smiles. The restaurant owners opened their second location in Chatsworth in mid-November 2003, and are currently serving a full house nightly.

Z: It's easy to understand why Woodland's first restaurant is well established in Artesia with a successful10-year history. As Pratik, the restaurant's amiable manager, escorted us to our table, we watched trays of exotic, eye-appealing dishes make their way to various tables. That brief impression left an image of the longest rolled crepe I had ever seen.

Woodlands R: Zel's image turned out to be a reality. That sensational looking crepe was one of many Dosa variations prepared by Chef Kumar who comes from Madras in the southern part of India. We had experienced a few dishes from this cuisine before but soon recognized the northern Indian chefs who prepared them were only vaguely familiar with the foods of the southern region.

Z: While the menu listed a few familiar items like Samosas, Pakoras, and Baingan Bartha, most of the specialties were a first encounter for us. Pratik was well acquainted with the menu and knew all the ingredients that went into each item. He took delight in making suggestions that would introduce us to a good representation of the cuisine.

R: On our first visit we were joined by another couple of adventurous foodies, Jay and Helen, who were as eager to explore the cuisine as we were. We took Pratik's suggestion to begin with Rasam, a traditional soup described as sour and spicy. The tamarind-based soup was a light, well-seasoned broth that offered the tasty flavors of tomato, curry leaves, cilantro, and red chili--lots of chili!

Z: They weren't kidding when they said spicy. If you're timid about spices, perhaps you might explore other dishes and request mild spice. On our second visit, Reuben ordered the Sweet Corn Soup, a lightly thickened, spicy and flavorful soup that had the look of confetti with the generous array of colorful vegetables suspended throughout. Gregg, who joined us on our second visit, said it was the best soup he ever tasted.

R: The Assorted Appetizers served on a large oval platter consisted of a Samosa, Vegetable Pakora, Vada (a fried lentil donut), Mysore Bonda (a golden brown lentil dumpling), Vegetable Cutlet (a potato and vegetable patty), and a variety of breaded deep-fried vegetables.

Z: We thought we were old hands at Samosas and Pakoras. At Woodlands, however, all the seasonings are heightened, turning many of these appetizers into standout specialties. Along with the appetizers were the dipping sauces: Sambar (a lentil sauce), Coconut Chutney, Mint Chutney, and Tamarind Sauce. The Coconut Chutney made from coconut, cilantro, and chili was irresistibly creamy and served us quite well as a spice tamer.

R: One of the exceptional specialties of South Indian cuisine is the Dosa, a thin, soft crepe made of rice and stuffed with a variety of fillings. The Woodlands Special Spring Dosa dominates the large oval platter with its nearly 16-inch length. Inside is a colorful selection of diced raw carrots, cabbage, onions, cilantro, chilis, and cooked potatoes. On the side are the Sambar and Coconut Chutney that are frequent accompaniments to many dishes.

Z: The super size Paper Dosa makes an even more dramatic presentation with its 30-inch length. The golden brown, paper-thin rice crepe is prepared by pouring the batter onto a gigantic grill and spreading it with the back of a small bowl until it covers a good portion of the grill surface. It cooks quickly, about three or four minutes, and is then rolled into a four or five-inch diameter. This Dosa is accompanied with potatoes cooked with onions and lentils and the very familiar Sambar and Coconut Chutney.

R: I thought I was a pancake aficionado, but at Woodlands I met a brand new variety, the Uthappam, a twelve-inch diameter rice pancake cooked on the grill with different toppings that actually become imbedded into the batter when cooked. The Onion and Chilli Uthappam is a large, dense peppery pancake with loads of chiles and onions. The pancake itself is made from rice that is soaked overnight and ground in a special grinder with a stone burr and stone base to create finer flour and a smoother pancake.

Z: The Woodlands Vegetable Uthappam is our favorite of their pancakes. It looked like a dazzling, multi-colored Fourth of July rocket that burst on our plate instead of in the sky. Reuben called it an Indian pizza because it was colorfully dotted with diced carrots, chiles, onions, peas, cilantro, and okra.

R: Among the menu selections is a host of curries. Pratik, who was keenly aware of our vegan focus, suggested the Palak minus the Paneer. Paneer is Indian cheese. Palak is curried spinach cooked in tomatoes, onions, and plenty of spices. Zel kept saying she wished she were a fly on the kitchen wall so she could learn to use the spices with the skill of an Indian chef.

Z: Delicious, freshly prepared breads are one of India's specialties. The Aloo Paratha, a whole wheat bread filled with potatoes, could easily become addictive. Well seasoned, perfectly cooked, and wholesome, the Paratha was so satisfying there wasn't a speck of it left on the platter.

R: Among the House Specialties is the exceptional Gobi Manchurian. Gregg, who is not the least enamoured with cauliflower, found the dish irresistible. We learned the preparation is typically Chinese but popular in India. The richly flavored cauliflower florets are dusted with corn flour and fried with garlic, ginger, and chiles and seasoned with a splash of soy sauce.

Z: Pratik suggested another of the restaurant's most popular courses, the Channa Batura. An oval metal dish filled with Channa Masala, chickpeas cooked in a hearty thick and spicy sauce, rested on a large platter. Hiding the chickpeas entirely was a huge puffy bread made from a combination of whole wheat and white flour. The delicious, airy, golden brown bread, about 12-inches in diameter and about four inches in height, was dotted with shiny crystal-like spots that covered the entire surface. We learned these were the result of oil sprinkled on the bread during the deep frying process.

R: We should explain that not all these dishes were consumed in one meal but rather in two visits. The foods were so uniquely different from the Northern Indian style of cooking that we felt we couldn't do justice to our review without further exploring the menu offerings. Soup Birds

Z: On our second visit, Suddushun, our young, congenial, and effervescent server kept coming back after each course he brought to ask how we liked it. We truly did enjoy everything we tasted but must emphasize that the foods are quite spicy and may not be comfortable for every palate. Most items can be ordered mildly spiced.

R: Woodlands is a comfortable place to dine with its upholstered booths along the walls and tables in the center of the large, square brightly lit room. The glass-top tables are dressed with white tablecloths underneath, yet the decor is simple, clean, and pleasant. Huge windows are covered with mesh window shades to prevent the sun from becoming uncomfortable and a scalloped drape valance covers one section of windows. We noticed each table had a water pitcher, water goblets, and a vase with a single plastic rose in it.

Z: At lunchtime, the restaurant offers a very reasonable buffet, while on Saturdays and Sundays diners can take advantage of the Champagne/Beer Brunch from 11:30 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. Chef Kumar heads the kitchen staff consisting of four chefs, all from Madras.

R: It was easy to recognize that the entire staff was eager to introduce their cuisine to newcomers. We even got a goodbye greeting as we were leaving. If you're looking for value and tasty food, you'll certainly find it here.

Woodlands Pure Vegetarian South Indian Cuisine
9840 Topanga Canyon Blvd., Unit A
Chatsworth, CA 91311
Phone 818-998-3031
Hours: Tuesday through Friday Lunch Buffet 11:30 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.
Dinner 5:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m.
Saturday and Sunday Champagne/Beer Brunch 11:30 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.
Dinner 3:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m.
Closed Monday

Reviewed January 2004

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