First comes the faint aroma of fried wheat. Then a waiter whisks by with a golden puff the size of a basketball. You crack through the exterior of this steam-filled bread balloon, called bhatura, and tear off fragile swatches of it to use as a utensil.
Bhatura is just one in a stunning lineup of fanciful, savory dishes at Woodlands, a South Indian vegetarian restaurant that opened last year near Artesia's Little India. South Indian cooks transform humble rice, wheat and legumes into crisp crepes and floppy griddle cakes, savory pastries, crunchy fritters, rich porridges and myriad exotic breads. It's one of the world's most colorful cuisines, and even for die-hard carnivores, it's all tremendous fun to eat.
A card on the menu explains that Woodlands' recipes originated in Udupi, a city crowded with ancient temples and famous for its vegetarian cooking. The tropical climate of southern India has made for a lighter, simpler cuisine than the rich Moghlai food familiar at most Indian restaurants around here.
The flavor of coconut pervades every meal, starting with the generous bowls of freshly grated coconut chutney. Coconut also shows up in curries, sauces and garnishes.
Cooking Expertise Evident in Appetizers
Woodlands' assorted appetizer plate--enough food to last a small gathering through "Monday Night Football" munching--is true evidence of this kitchen's skill. You get a curried vegetable "cutlet" encased in crackly fried breading, the light lentil doughnut vada, the spongy lentil dumpling called Mysore bonda, airy potato fritters (pakoras) and a samosa with a flaky pastry crust.
Many people think of South Indian food as blazingly spicy, probably because of the scalding curries of Madras, which is at the other end of south India from Udupi (it's in the state of Tamil Nadu, Udupi is in Karnataka). The food at Woodlands produces a slow burn rather than a searing blast. For most dishes the cooks tone down their chiles by scraping the seeds out of them before use. Such is the case with Malabar adai, a thin lentil pancake that puts out just a few BTUs though it's embedded mosaic-style with a whole handful of sliced serrano chiles. (If you do want a dose of heat, the lime pickle chutney will rev up any dish.)
Of the 15 varieties of dosai, the flashiest is the ultra-thin paper dosai. It's rolled into a crisp, golden tube longer than a full-size baseball bat. You dip it (like all the pancakes and pastries) in sambar, the brightly spiced South Indian lentil broth. There are various kinds of dosai--the batter can be made of rice alone or rice mixed with farina or ground lentils. The paper dosai is served empty, but several others have fillings or toppings.
The smaller, earthier crepe called pesarat gets its heft from being made of yellow lentil flour. It's rolled around a filling of shredded potatoes, minced onions and fresh chiles. For flash and sparkle, you add sambar and chutneys to taste.
The faintly sour wheat griddle cake uthappam is the size of a single-serving pizza. Woodland serves half a dozen styles with various toppings. The one with fresh grated coconut worked into its batter is sumptuous.
Cutlery is provided here, but the traditional way to eat this food is with the hands. (Finger licking is not considered particularly good form, though.) It's the most practical way to deal with pancakes or dosais, and a mouthful of curry is easily gathered up with bread.
Along with the fritters and cakes, have avial (vegetables cooked in coconut milk) or one of the 11 curries. The rich roasted eggplant dish baigan bartha or the flash-fried okra curry kadai bhendi make magnificent seasonings for plainer breads or rice.
There's Always Room for Halwa or Kulfi
The desserts will be familiar to any Indian food buff--kulfi, ras malai, halwa, gulab jamun--but the versions sold here will be daintier and more subtly flavored than the ones sold in your neighborhood Indian restaurant or deli.
You can find Woodlands at the far corner of Artesia Center, hidden behind Sav-On between Water Gourmet and Books 'N Bits, a bookstore selling dictionaries of Indian languages. The severity of the dining room's urbane but stark interior is softened here and there with an Indian arch or a statue of Vishnu. And where did they get the name Woodlands? Borrowed it from a well-known restaurant in India.
* Woodlands, Artesia Center, 11833 Artesia Blvd., Artesia. (562) 860-6500. Open 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday. Full bar. Parking lot. All major cards. Dinner for two, $21-$35; lunch buffet for one, $6.95.
* What to Get: paper dosai, bhatura, Malabar adai, coconut uthappam, avial, baigan bartha, kadai bhendi.