After listening to two of my housemates pine for their
mothers’ homemade Indian food and after hearing their
critiques of Ann Arbor’s Indian restaurants (in which they
declared that no food compared to mom’s), I welcomed the
opportunity to accompany them to Madras Masala, the most recent
addition to Ann Arbor’s Indian restaurant collection.

Janna Hutz
Just like mom makes it. (FOREST CASEY/Daily)

Madras Masala, with its cumin-colored walls and colorful
cuisine, is just a hop away from campus. The restaurant takes its
name from two Indian words. Madras is the name of the southern
seaside capital city of the state of Tamil Nadu, located on the Bay
of Bengal. Masala, a culinary term used all over India to refer to
a spice, a blend of spices, or a method of cooking. The menu boasts
not only south Indian fare, but Indo-Chinese and Moghlai dishes as
well and many vegetarian options.

Within the borders of India, there exists a great spectrum of
culinary variation. South Indian cuisine differs from that of the
North in a number of ways, including the selection of spices, the
incorporation of small amounts of coconut, the methods of cooking
and the presence of special lentils (dals) and soups.

Dosa and uttapam are two traditional Southern dishes that appear
prominently on the menu at Madras. A dosa is a thin
crêpe-like pancake that can be served alone or with other
foods. The thickness and spice level of the dosa varies but it is
served with a selection of chutneys. An uttapam is a thicker
version of dosa used as bread or topped with vegetables.

One of my favorite things about Indian food is the intricacy of
the flavors. There is no such thing as homogenous taste; complexity
is the name of the game. One spice rarely dominates, and a
magically harmonious balance prevents the individual character of
any spice from completely disappearing. The mystery that surrounds
the blending of spices continues to baffle me, so all I can do is
enjoy the dishes crafted by those who have mastered the art.

For those unfamiliar with Indian cuisine, be cautious of the
spice level. If you are worried that a dish will be too hot, ask
your server to see if it can be adjusted to your taste. A Masala
dosa, basic and tasty, is a good introduction to Southern Indian
fare.

In principle, I think that the best way to enjoy Indian food is
to order a number of dishes for the table to share. However, I
couldn’t resist the promised warmth of soup on a bitter cold
night and so I started with a rather selfish appetizer. Piping hot
when it arrived, the tomato soup was thick, flavorful and agreeably
piquant. The fresh coriander garnish provided not only a nice color
contrast between the red of the soup and the green of the herb, but
also had added another layer to the flavor of the soup.

Next, we ordered two dosas for the table, one Mysore Dosa, which
was paper-thin and spread with a spicy chutney, and a Madras Masala
Special Dosa, which was a bit thicker and filled with potato and
onion. Each was served with three dipping sauces, two to cool the
fire, coconut chutney and a tomato-based sauce, and a third,
dangerously hot sauce, to increase the heat if the kitchen’s
spicing of the dosa wasn’t adequate.

Arriving with a good amount of spice, I found that adding the
very spicy sauce catapulted me past my spice threshold. In
contrast, the sweet coconut chutney had a very soothing effect on
my enflamed taste buds.

A word of caution: A dosa, although fairly thin, is deceivingly
filling and a meal in itself. If you are having more dishes
following the dosa, opt for an unfilled dosa to conserve valuable
stomach space, or, bring along many friends to share the
dishes.

We continued our dinner with lamb vindaloo, a northern dish and
vegetable briyani (a rice dish cooked in a sealed pot). Both were
excellent, but the lamb was slightly better. Served in a thick
gravy that when prepared at a medium spice level wasn’t too
hot, the lamb had a tangy, almost sour, aftertaste.

In spite of very leisurely service, the meal was declared a
success and even my most discerning housemate was pleased. The only
criticism was that the Northern Indian dishes were not as
satisfying as their southern cuisines. Future customers should
stick to the South Indian specialties Madras has to offer.

Dinner entrées are very reasonably priced from $5.95 to
$11.95 and dosas run between $4.95 and $7.95 and a dosa lunch
buffet is available daily for $7.95 Monday thru Friday and for
$8.95 Saturday and Sunday. Carry-out is also available.

Madras Masala is located at 328 Maynard Street. It is open
Monday-Friday for lunch 11:30a.m. – 3p.m. and dinner 5-10p.m. Open
Saturday noon-10:30p.m. and Sunday noon-9:30p.m.

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