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Saturday, August 6, 2011

Vimala's Curryblossom Cafe

Restaurant reviews are not really part of what I intended for this website, but the Curryblossom is so good that I just had to make an exception.

I love Indian food. I even like Indian-ish food. But the truth of the matter is that most Indian restaurants in the US are not real Indian food, they're an odd sort of Punjabi-Bengali-American-ish fusion that you would never find in any Indian home.

If you're fortunate enough to live in an area where there are a LOT of Indians, you may have stumbled across some of the exceptions to the above rule of thumb, but I have never had the good fortune to live somewhere like that. Mostly I've gotten used to the dishes inflicted on us by the more typical places serving sort of Indian-ish cuisine. Actually sometimes I like that style of cooking - but it's really not real Indian food. It is, however, what a lot of people now expect when they go to an Indian Restaurant.

After having tried several of the Indian restaurants in the area, I was pretty well resigned to the typical sort of Indian-ish fare I've come to expect over the years. Don't get me wrong - some of the other places in town are fairly good presentations of that sort of cuisine. But there was nothing new or special about any of them, including the one place in Durham where I found "Masala Dosa" on the buffet (the buffet - something else that seems ubiquitous now for Indian restaurants in the US). In fact the dosa were tough and rubbery. Not sure how that happened, but it was a disappointment. The only upside to that was that my dosa aren't THAT bad, so I got to feel superior. (They're not good, mind you. They're just not as bad as THAT.)

So one day I'm wandering around in downtown Chapel Hill, as I am wont to do (since it seems I'm perpetually a little bit lost these days), and I come upon the end of the run of restaurants on that section of Franklin Street. I want Indian food. Or Thai. Or good Chinese. Unfortunately there are no really good examples of any of those in Chapel Hill (at least not that I've found so far), and I'm just not up for the OK Indian-ish fare that's available. Plus the last time I set foot in the "upscale" Indian restaurant that everybody thinks is so good, they were SO incredibly rude that I ended up walking out. (I did go back another time - basically I got caught on foot in a downpour, and it was a choice between getting soaking wet or going in there. I chose wrongly - I went in.)

So I wander over to where there's a restaurant named "Penang", and discover that that is where there USED to be a restaurant named "Penang".

Darn! I was at least willing to TRY a new Thai place. Well at least I'd been told they served Thai food, although it sounds Malaysian. Anyway. Then I notice a little sign stuck in the grass strip there that says "Vimala's Curryblossom Cafe" - in "the courtyard", which I am guessing is to be reached by walking back between the (now missing) Penang and the OTHER empty storefront next to it.

I walk back, and there, tucked into a corner, is Vimala's. Drat it all, it's only 11 AM and they don't open 'til 11:30.

Oh well, I have a book, and there are places to sit. And I don't get around as well as I once did, so I'm happy enough to sit down, take a load off, and wait for them to open.

Eventually I wend my way into the restaurant proper. This is definitely not a "trendy", upscale place, like that restaurant which shall remain nameless of the rude rude staff, but that's not something I much care about (in fact I find that kind of ostentation a bit off-putting). I am a little worried, however, when I look around and see many many young people of the decidedly non-Asian-Indian variety behind the counter and in the kitchen. And that's ALL. Pretty sure I didn't spot anybody over the age of say 25-ish.

"Sigh" I sighed to myself. Well, I guess crunchy-granola-Indian-fusion is at least something different. (Yes, I was being a little judgmental. I'm sorry. I'm getting crotchety in my old age I think, LOL!)

Oh well. Like I said I don't get around that well anymore, and frankly I'd already walked through the vast majority of Restaurant Row without feeling like stopping anywhere else. So I lit.

I did feel a bit better when Vimala herself made an appearance (ah, there is the person who knows real Indian food! Little did I know how WELL she knows real Indian food.)

All I can say is, they blew my socks off. This is real Indian food like your mother would feed you, if she was South Indian. And if your mother is South Indian, then I hope she fed you food this good.

That day I had the Baingan Bharta, which was really good. I didn't notice the Masala Dosa on the menu until after I'd already ordered, so of course I had to go back for that another day. Except, when I did, the Uttapam seduced me away (oh, fickle fickle! To wear one's stomach on one's sleeve!) So of course, I STILL had to go back for the Masala Dosa.

The Masala Dosa comes with a thick, flavorfuly spiced sambar; coconut chutney; a dollop of potato curry; and something called "gunpowder", which I discovered, much to my embarrasment, I had been calling "chat masala" for something like 20 years. In my own defense, I think I finally figured out how I came to mislabel that. Long long ago I came across some of this stuff in an Indian grocery which was only labeled in Hindi. At least I assume it was Hindi; let's just say it WASN'T labeled in English.

"What's this?" I asked the proprietor. "Oh, that's spice powder." she says. I asked what was in it, and was told ground urud, ground chana, and some miscellaneous spices. You're supposed to mix it with ghee and serve with idli. Only I can't make idli, remember? I was afraid to try again after reducing my blender's motor to a smoking mass. So I didn't buy it.

This had to be over 20 years ago because I (barely) remember it being in Ohio.

Then a few years ago - maybe 5 - I came across something labeled "chat masala" in an Indian grocery in Missouri.

"What's this?" I asked the proprietor. "Oh, that's spice powder."

OK. So now "spice powder" becomes linked with "chat masala" as well as that stuff in the not-marked-in-English bag from 15 years before. Now put these 2 items next to each other and they look NOTHING alike; but it had been 15 years between sightings, after all, so I didn't realize at the time.

Now fast forward to the present day.

"My dad gave me this," sez my son, showing me some stuff in a bag that IS labeled in English, "What's it for?"

This stuff says "Chutney Powder". It looks vaguely familiar. I read the ingredients. 81% black gram, it says. (That's urud dal). "For idli, dosa" it says further on the packet. Oh yeah! I know what this is! Spice powder! CHAT MASALA!

So for years I've been calling this stuff "chat masala" when it was nothing like. Vimala set me straight, LOL! (It's GUNPOWDER. GUNPOWDER.)

But I digress. Since I have a strong aversion to anything coconut flavored - say, coconut chutney - I asked that they hold the chutney. Shortly Vimala herself came out and offered me several alternative chutneys. I picked the ginger chutney, and oh what a good choice that was!

Let me tell you, if I thought I'd had my socks blown off to start with, the Masala Dosa had to have blown me totally out of all my clothes and left me naked with all my food-related nerve endings tingling like they'd been struck by lightning. Which they had. (No, don't try to picture that. It would be a hideous sight. Just take it for a bit of hyperbole in service of TRYING to describe just how good that Masala Dosa was.)

I'm serious. It was so good I was bouncing in my chair making nomnom noises. There was a guy standing at the counter laughing at me. I was having paroxysms of joy!

Go ahead. Laugh at me. I've been cooking and eating Indian food for almost 35 years and except for my friend Usha's cooking, I haven't had anything that good outside of India. I make kind of crummy dosa myself, using cheaty kind of recipes that use pre-ground flours instead of fresh-grinding the whole dal and rice as you should. After burning the motor of my blender out lo these 30 years ago I never tried an authentic recipe again. So these were GOOD.

If you are ever anywhere in the area, give Vimala's a try. You only THINK you've ever had authentic Indian food up to now.

Unless of course your mother is Indian . . .

Vimala's Curryblossom Cafe on Urbanspoon

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