Taste of rasa returns to Columbia

August 22, 1996|By Laura Rottenberg | Laura Rottenberg,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

What to do if you are driving through Columbia and feel the need for some emergency rasa therapy? It used to be that you could stop by Mela, a tiny emporium of South Indian vegetarian cuisine that promoted the Indian philosophy of Ayurveda, or the science of life.

This 3,000-year-old culinary/curative philosophy is based on the notion that there are six flavors, or rasas, that should guide the preparation of every meal. Sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter and astringent: Each restores mind and body when correctly proportioned to one another.

Sadly, Mela has closed. But stepping into the void is the new Mango Grove, situated just blocks from where Mela stood. Also, serving up South Indian vegetarian fare, Mango Grove has dazzling dishes just might make a meat lover recant. Here, the rasa therapy is a synergy of spicy hot curries, cooling yogurts and pungent sauces.

Service is exceptionally warm at Mango Grove, but don't expect a gastronomic tour guide. The uninitiated should take a shotgun approach when ordering. The Mango Grove appetizer sampler is the way to go for the novice.

Aside from standard vegetable samosa (potatoes, onions and peas stuffed in a crisp, flaky crust), the platter presents delicately flavored mysore vadai (fried lentil doughnuts), vegetable cutlets (minced veggies, breaded and deep-fried), mysore bonda (fried lentil dumplings), dhal vadai (crispy lentil and chickpea patties) and -- our table's albatross -- idli (bland, gummy steamed rice and lentil cakes).

A more complicated and more interesting idli, offered only on weekends, is flavored with carrot, nuts and cilantro. These pastry snacks are even better when dunked in a smoldering, pale-green cilantro sauce, a mild yogurt raita or a five-alarm sambal chili sauce.

Entrees range from familiar curries to utterly exotic pastries. If dosai (vegetable-filled rice and lentil crepes) resemble occupied sleeping bags on a plate, don't panic. Our favorite is the mysore masala dosai, layered with spicy chutney and mellow potato-onion curry.

Several dishes cluster as "national specialties." Our choice, ven poongal, is a satisfying dish of rice and lentils scented with a combination of fresh coconut, Malabar pepper, turmeric and coriander. It is served with avial, a thin vegetable curry.

Mango Grove's curries and pulavs (rice dishes) are often complementary. Balance the slow burn of vegetable curry with soothing and fragrant spiced coconut rice.

Even an Indian food rookie will love the breads. Bhatura is a large, deep-fried balloon of wheat flour and yogurt, and onion paratha is a flaky, pancakelike bread layered with sweet onions and spices.

Indian restaurants' desserts tend to baffle the Western palate. Most involve a simple sugar syrup that serves as a medium for nuts, pastry and housemade cheese. Rasmalai, the most daunting dessert at Mango Grove, pairs gluey cheese with soft cashews in syrup and buttermilk.

A bit more accessible, the "madras special payasam" floats raisins, cashews, coconut and squiggles of vermicelli in something that resembles a cardamom-infused creme anglaise. The faint of heart might opt to end a meal here with a comforting cup of chai, a milky spiced black tea.

Beverage choices are limited to soda, tea and coffee, so if you'd like wine or beer, bring your own.

Mango Grove is a quiet and simple haven from the bustle of the surrounding office parks. But even if Ayurvedic clarity and peace of mind elude you, one thing's for certain -- your mouth will be tingling from a whole lotta rasas.

The Mango Grove

6365B Dobbin Road, Columbia

(410) 884-3426

Hours: Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11: 30 a.m.-10 p.m.

Credit cards: Major credit cards.

Prices: appetizers, $2-$6.75; entrees, $4.50-$13.95

Pub Date: 8/22/96

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