You know the thrill of seeing a candlelit birthday cake carried to the table?
I guarantee that's how you'll feel when one of the fire-log-size dosai — white lentil and rice crepes — makes its way from the kitchen at Woodlands in Lauderhill. Dosai are a specialty of South India and the most-popular menu item here.
You can order a plain dosai ($6.95), but I'd recommend having one of the filled versions. Mysore masala dosai ($8.95) is filled with potatoes and onions with layers of hot chutney. With paneer dosai ($10.95), the crepe is filled with the fresh cheese known as paneer and then rolled. It's like an Indian grilled-cheese sandwich.
Woodlands Indian restaurant will not win any awards for its decor. Aside from the Stars and Stripes and the flag of India, the 80-seat restaurant is all mica tables, mirrored walls and paper place mats.
Woodlands, named after a popular chain in South India, opened in 2005 as a vegetarian South Indian restaurant. It's still vegetarian, but three years ago, when Bharat Malhotra and Nikhil Seth took over, they improved on the Northern Indian curries and added new menu categories. Dishes are freshly prepared and presented on an assortment of serving dishes, garnished with fresh vegetables. Along with green chutney and tamarind chutney, Woodlands offers coconut chutney among the accompanying condiments.
"When we took over the restaurant," Malhotra says, "we said, 'Why can't we serve the same food in the restaurant like what we have at home?' "
One new menu category is called Chinese Corner. It features the cuisine brought to India from Chinese immigrants, which is represented in nine dishes that include spring rolls ($5.95), vegetable fried rice ($8.95) and one of the most-original cauliflower preparations I've ever seen. Called Gobi Manchurian ($9.95), cauliflower is quickly stir-fried in ginger, garlic, spring onions, chilis and soy sauce.
Malhotra and Seth also added a section for chaat, savory street food or snack food in India. It can take many forms, but it always includes fried dough and toppings. We had papri chaat ($5), crunchy wheat crackers topped with potatoes, chickpeas and a sweet and spicy sauce. The addition of yogurt and tamarind chutney made this one of the most complex dishes we tasted.
But it's probably best to start a meal at Woodlands with the appetizer platter ($9.95), which gives you potato and pea-filled samosa; a vegetable cutlet that some may know as tikki: a steamed idli, which is made from rice and lentils; a fried lentil doughnut; and a deep-fried potato and chickpea-filled parkora.
Bhatura ($9.95) is a large, fluffy bread that arrived steamy from the kitchen. Order chana bhatura, and you get the steam-filled bread with a serving of chickpeas (chana) curry. If you love bread, you'll also love the fluffy wheat poori ($3.25) and garlic naan ($3), with garlic, cilantro and spices.
We couldn't resists the curries, which are served with rice and cucumber raita and are more typical of north India. Baingan bharta ($9.95) is a popular mashed eggplant dish with onion, tomatoes and spices. It tasted much fresher here than at many Indian restaurants. Be sure to order dal makhani ($9.95). Makhani means butter, so this is a rich dish with kidney beans, yellow and black lentils cooked with onions, tomato and spices.
When it looked like we were going to leave some dal makhani behind, our waiter reminded us how good it would be as a leftover. We already knew that. Service is excellent at Woodlands, and the staff makes a point of guiding newcomers through the menu. At lunchtime, they serve a buffet ($8.95 weekdays, $10.95 weekends) that features more than 20 items, including bread. You can always count on naan and bhatura.
I even liked the desserts at Woodlands, which in most Indian restaurants are an afterthought and purchased commercially. Gulab jamun ($3.45) are fried dough balls made from cheese and a bit of flour. They are then soaked in a rose-water-scented sugar syrup. Madras special payasam ($3.45) combines vermicelli and sweetened milk and honey in a kind of pudding garnished with raisins and cashews. Kulfi falooda ($4.95) is ice cream — either mango, pistachio or vanilla — with vermicelli and rose syrup.
I'm not sure you'll need dessert after this most satisfying of meals. The wonders of vegetarian Indian cuisine are on display six days a week at Woodlands.
Woodlands Indian restaurant
4816 N. University Drive, Lauderhill
Hours: Lunch and dinner Tuesday-Sunday
Reservations: Only for 10 or more
Credit cards: D, MC, V
Bar: No alcohol
Sound level: Conversational
Outside smoking: No
For kids: Highchairs
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Parking: Free lot