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Woodlands, Newark - 11/23 South Indian chowdown report (looooong)

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It was a beautiful day in the Southeast Bay Sunday 11/23 when eight of us got together for lunch at Woodlands in Newark. Melanie recruited her sister Stephanie, brother William, and brother-in-law Larry to join ChewToy and Erin and me and Ali.

Shocker’s initial recommendation of Woodlands was posted nearly a year ago, but oddly enough, once we’d been seated we were told that the place had undergone a change of ownership four days before! The new owners are five brothers who run a mini-empire (three or four restaurants called Swagat Gourmet) in New Jersey. Though still South Indian and vegetarian, the focus is now more on Mysorean cuisine (Mysore being the hometown of the owners).

Roger, the brother who was our server for the meal, was enormously friendly and helpful. He imparted all sorts of interesting tidbits such as the fact that in the Hindu religion members of the soldier caste are allowed to eat meat because meat breeds aggression. I know we all felt the opposite of aggressive at the end of our wonderful vegetarian meal!

No sooner had we taken our seats than an amuse-bouche, small bowls of Mysore Rasam, appeared in front of each of us. Rasam is a thin tomato broth, and this one was incredible. Definitely spiced with cayenne or chili pepper, because there was quite a kick at the end of each sip. Some brightness we attributed to lime or lemon. Tamarind? we asked each other… Roger confirmed it for us. And the secret ingredient? Sarsparilla! Roger and Michael (the other brother and the chef) told us it’s known as “South Indian whiskey”. Unlike whiskey, however, it’s thought to increase memory and eyesight, and improve digestion, as well. A wonderful introduction to the food of Mysore and Woodlands!

We ordered a few appetizers and carefully divvied them up amongst ourselves.

Muddur Vada are described as “traditional savory biscuits” on the menu. They are delicious and light even though deep-fried, composed of 3 different flours (rice, lentil, and wheat?) and spices. ChewToy said they “weren’t too fried” tasting, and we all agreed. Coconut chutney (one of the defining components of South Indian cuisine) was served with the Vada for dipping. This dish had quite a nice texture play.

Plain Idli & Vada Combo was the next to arrive, and unfortunately I can’t remember the Vada in this dish. Someone will have to help me out. The Idli, however, was a revelation. Melanie and I both hadn’t been big fans of Idli – we found it rather plain and heavy at other places. This one was almost like a molded mound of pure white cream of wheat or couscous. “Much lighter than usual”, said Melanie. Again, dipped in coconut chutney, and another creamy sauce/chutney with some spice to it (salmon red in color).

Kancheepuram Idli were not at all like the Plain Idli, but consisted of chopped or ground chickpeas, ginger, and cardamom, and were served with coconut chutney and the also ever-present Sambar (another soup, more rustic and thicker than the Rasam with a little spice and some coconut, and of course, better at Woodlands than other places I’ve had it – are you seeing a theme?). Also delicious.

Mysore Vegetable Bonda were vegetable fritters, very much like Pakora at North Indian restaurants. They were good, not too greasy or heavy, with a spicy kick to them.

At this point everything was great – light and not greasy, with enough spice for ChewToy but not too much for those of us who aren’t addicted to heat! We went on to order entrees…

Mysore Rava Masala Dosa is a large wheat and rice flour crepe filled with curried potatoes and onions – crunchy, lacy, and crispy, it was a table favorite.

Onion Masala Dosa was more your standard dosa – the rice crepe was good but just not as special as the Rava Masala Dosa (perhaps it was the Mysorean component!). Also, we didn’t notice this was particularly onion-y.

We also ordered “Our Special Uttapam”, which is a thick moist white pancake (rice flour again, I’d assume) with peas, onions, chilis, and other good things incorporated within. This didn’t have a lot of flavor, but again, was better than other Uttapam I’ve had at Udupi Places and other S. Indian joints. Nicely fried – again, not greasy. It was also slightly crispy outside and soft inside, almost like hashbrown texture.

Mysore Adai was another table favorite – pink-red in color, it was another pancake type thing, this time made with four different kinds of lentils. Did the pink color come from tomato, chili, or the type of lentils? Anyone? Anyway, it was thinner than the Uttapam, but also crispy on the outside and soft inside. Delicious!

We proceeded to the rice courses after that. (Yes, we were full, but definitely not as full as if this meal had had meat in it.)

Puliyogare was crunchy and brown – the rice almost looked like little bits of vermicelli rather than rice. The menu touts this dish as having 14 spices in it (count ‘em!) – we definitely tasted tamarind and mustard seeds… All in all, very tasty.

Bisebelabath is the house special rice dish and is very close to a porridge in texture and comfort quotient. It contains lentils and rice (and orange, I have in my notes, though I don’t have any recollection of that!) and is served with lighter-than-air pappadum for dipping. Scrumptious. We all agreed that this dish didn’t taste that special with the first bite, but totally grows on you as you keep eating.

Bagalabath is a “traditional Mysorean curd rice served with Indian pickle” – it’s yogurt-y and cooling, with mustard seeds liberally sprinkled throughout. (I can’t really understand the mustard seed thing – no discernable flavor, and slightly annoying to bite into. Maybe it’s a texture thing.) I’m not a big fan of pickled things, and Indian pickle to me tastes like turpentine and toilet cleaner, so I’ll leave it to someone else to extol the virtues of the Indian pickle.

Call us crazy, but we had to order the South Indian thali, too! It isn’t often any of us gets down to Newark, after all. The thali (which I think changes daily or weekly) consisted of two rasams (one sweet and one sour – neither one the same as the amuse-bouche rasam), a good yellow daal, a delicious cauliflower curry with a universally familiar spice we had trouble placing (Roger told us it had cinnamon, fenugreek, and methi in it – he compared the dish to a korma, but we weren’t sure about that), a sweet mixed vegetable curry that was a low note in the thali because it looked like it had canned or frozen peas and carrots in it, very tasty lemon rice, chapati and more pappad, some very strained or whipped plain yogurt (“texture like marshmallow Fluff,” said Stephanie), a reasonably good pickle, and a yummy warm thin saffron custard with little vermicelli/rice noodle bits for dessert.

For dessert we ordered three dishes (we would have ordered four but the carrot halwa wasn’t ready yet, sadly). Sakkar Pongal is a dry rice pudding, not too sweet, which contains jaggery (brown sugar, we think).

Basundhi is a custard whose flavor and color reminded me (and Melanie and Stephanie, unless they were just humoring me) of Gjetost, the caramelly brown Norwegian goat cheese. Someone mentioned caramelized soy milk, too.

Gulab Jamun was outstanding – fresh, hot, soft inside, just the right texture. Not leaden or frozen at all as they often are. Probably the best I’ve ever had.

A bunch of us ordered mango lassis, and there were a couple of masala lassis floating around, too – nicely spiced with ginger and fresh herbs (mint, definitely), plus cucumber, we think. Very cooling, interesting, and delicious. Roger and Michael mentioned that you can bring your own beer or wine with you, but they’re probably not going to get a liquor license and start serving alcohol because they wouldn’t know how to match it with the food.

In sum, a wonderful, enjoyable meal with fun chowhounds and a great host in Roger the owner. I very much hope that this fantastic meal was not an opening week fluke. So often Indian restaurants eschew fresh ingredients for the convenience of frozen curries (homemade, I’m sure, but frozen and re-heated). This was quite an experience, full of fresh and homey flavors.

We also stopped by the South Indian market next door to Woodlands afterwards, Coconut Hill. Lots of neat stuff, including nice-looking fresh vegetables and fruits, and the makings of paan. Melanie can tell you how her search for paan at Udupi Palace (across the street) went.

Woodlands Restaurant
(510) 494-9727
39203 Cedar Blvd
Newark, CA 94560

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  1. Great report Alexandra! I didn't know about masala lassis-so it has ginger, mint and cucumber?

    4 Replies
    1. re: Arlene

      That's right, Arlene. I envisioned the masala lassi as being more like a masala chai, with warm spices in the yogurt, rather than cool herbs and cucumber. But masala just means "mixture", as far as I know, so this makes sense, too.

      Hope you get a chance to try Woodlands, and do report back! I hope the quality remains as good as the first week.

      1. re: Alexandra
        m
        Melanie Wong

        Thanks again for hosting this terrific outing, Alexandra. And, what a great job pulling together all this information – after a two and a half hour lunch there was a huge amount of ground to cover.

        We benefited from the attentive service, as the room was never more than half full during the time we were there. I felt we were somewhat of a curiosity for the staff as we were the only non-South Asians in the room. When we asked them to serve us course by course to enjoy each fresh from the kitchen, I was impressed that they were able to manage to do this.

        The cuisine has a very fresh taste, less oil with more precise flavor than say Annapoorna’s South Indian cooking. There’s careful attention to every detail - the coconut chutney was terrific and I especially liked the tomatoey/spicy pink condiment. Even the papads were better than everyone else’s somehow – fresher snap and thinner.

        I don’t have much more to add about the food, except to share the pictures below of the adai (my favorite dish) and the dessert selection. I also really liked the bagalabath with its cottage cheese like curds and unusual spicing. The gulab jamun (the first bowl on the left on the righthand photo) completely changed my views about this dessert.

        When I asked Roger about what I perceived as a reduced level of spicing, he explained that they set a medium level of heat for the house. The lovely rasam that we were served first is used to gauge the customers’ heat tolerance. Some will ask for more chilis after tasting the rasam, and they’ll adjust upwards. We did not. I did feel that the spicing was less fiery than Dasaprakash or Annapoorna but very close my personal limits.

        The five brothers now own four restaurants, and they want to have a total of five. I lobbied heavily for the fifth to be in San Francisco (doing my part for the local chow chamber of commerce) since there are no South Indian restaurants of note here (as far as we can tell). However, Roger said that this cuisine must rely on patronage from the South Indian community, and San Francisco does not fit the profile. So, if folks from the City make it down there, be sure to tell them where you live and that we need them up here too.

        The name of the restaurant will be changing in the next few months. The brothers hadn’t picked a new name yet.

        Afterwards, we did go in search of paan and found some to try as well as the component parts. But that’s another story.

        After we went our separate ways, my brother headed to Herat Market (5694 Thornton Ave., Newark), the Afghani market Alexandra identified. He called me from the car to say he he was munching on what he described as a nice and fresh, honey-soaked Indian jalebi.

        Image: http://home.earthlink.net/~melainewon...

        1. re: Melanie Wong

          Thanks again for hosting this terrific outing, Alexandra. However i would like to clarify that the following statement "Unlike whiskey, however, it’s thought to increase memory and eyesight, as well." was referred to Badam Halwa and not for Rassam which helps digestion.

          thanks
          ksv raj (Roger)
          Woodlands Restaurant

          1. re: KSV RAJ

            Thank you again for your hospitality, Roger, and for this correction.

            I'm still lobbying for a branch of your restaurant in San Francisco!

    2. Woodlands has closed & now it's called Jay Bharat - a Gujarati Vegetarian restaurant. Just walked by, didn't eat there.

      3 Replies
        1. re: Melanie Wong

          It is so funny that this thread just got renewed ten years later! And I happened to be looking at chowhound, which is (sadly!) a rare occurrence these days. Sorry to be off-topic, but ah, the memories... Hope you are well, Melanie!

          1. re: alixsinger

            Oh sweet Alexandra, LTNS! Yes, what saffron-colored memories (and curry-diving tandoori smoke in our hair). I'm so happy to see that you do drop in some times and managed a trip to LV. I think we need to make a date for some Guju chowing.