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As Puzzling As India Itself

January 11, 1987|MAX JACOBSON

A vegetarian thali , the traditional South Indian meal, derives its name from the metal plate it is served in. It is found all over south India. A good thali is irresistible, especially after a nose full of fresh Indian spices or a long, dusty train ride across the South Indian plains.

One of the most memorable meals I have ever experienced was the thali served at Hotel Dasaprakash in Mysore, India. I can still picture the dining room and the common table at which I was seated. Before I had time to take it all in, I had been handed a wonderful round metal plate, and a waiter had dashed over to heap mountains of boiled rice onto it from a shoulder-mounted bucket. As soon as he had finished, another waiter arrived toting a steaming kettle of sambar (a tamarind-flavored lentil broth, a staple of south India) and began ladling it onto my rice.

More waiters materialized with side dishes: snacks like popadum and vadai , crisped wafers and savory doughnuts made from lentil flour and spices, and dosai , paper-thin rice-flour crepes filled with curried potato. Main dishes were then brought: piquant bean and cabbage saute, stewed cauliflower, fenugreek leaves with pot cheese, and curried coconut. To top it off, there were endless condiments and a vast array of sticky sweets.

A thali is eaten with the fingers: The rice is balled up and mixed with the dishes of your choice. This can be indescribably sensual. As soon as you finish a dish, it is replenished, so the only way to get them to stop serving you is to leave a full plate. What a paradox in a country like India.

Dasaprakash opened a restaurant in Los Angeles in July of 1985, and it was doing rather well, having brought some of that sensuality along with an excellent kitchen staff. Then it closed abruptly last year, taking its small band of groupies, and this writer, by surprise. Although their visit to our world was all too brief, they left some Indian magic behind, because a few short months later a reincarnation has appeared, calling itself Manjula's South Indian Restaurant. Hare Krishna!

Manjula's South Indian Restaurant occupies the same La Cienega Boulevard location that Dasaprakash once did, and things even look the same as before. Well, they're not. The souls have been altered.

In a way, Manjula's is a little like India itself: a wonderful, frustrating experience, a mix of cultures and contradictions. It's really a puzzling restaurant.

Manjula's bills itself as a unique combination of vegetarian and non-vegetarian cuisine; that's a contradiction itself. The cultural mix is furnished by the staff: Manager Rafael Anthony is a Christian from Poona near Bombay, the chefs are from Madras on the Bay of Bengal, and the waiters are from Sri Lanka and Nepal.

Wonder and frustration can be found on the menu. A thali is served here, with three or four vegetable dishes: lime rice, iddly , a pounded rice cake, sambar , curd, pickles and terrific appalam , roasted lentil crisps, the latter being easily the best in the city. But the thali as a whole misses something; although a good introduction to South Indian food, it needs more flavor and balance. Specialty dishes are even more erratic; some are perfect, others miss wildly.

Manjula's magnificent vadai , for example, are crisp, golden lentil doughnuts with not a drop of wasted oil on them and a sweet, aromatic crunch with every bite. But then there's garlic chicken, sodden with coconut oil and enough garlic to make your ears ring.

Lamb biryani with chicken kurma , a chef's special and a northern specialty, will surely bring you back. The lamb is extra-tender cubed loin, and the basmati rice is fragrant, glistening with grainy spices. This is accompanied by a side dish of braised chicken in a rich, subtle sauce; the combination is a stroke of genius. Then, just as you are about to sing the praises of the chef, you find yourself shaking your head at a fish curry, a lackluster chunk of halibut in a sauce that seems to be pure tamarind, and a taste combination that I rank with the more unpleasant dishes I've tried.

Manjula's doesn't seem to spice dishes as much as some of our more celebrated Indian restaurants, and that's suspicious, given the fiery nature of South Indian food. Perhaps they are too eager to please. A waiter asked me if I wanted a dish "hot, medium hot, or not hot." "Medium hot," I said. I think he must have been referring to temperature.

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