Vegetarians must have been especially desolate. For them, Mango Grove was a serene retreat, with an atmosphere just fancy enough to qualify as a date night.
Just think: six months without those well-tempered vegetable curries and all that time without a single dosai. The latter is a Mango Grove house specialty, an oversized savory crepe made from a rice-and-lentil batter and stuffed with ingredients like potatoes, sauteed onions, vegetable masalas and cottage cheese.
They're all back in circulation at Mango Grove's new location, about a half-mile down Dobbin Road, and the old gang appears to have made the journey. The restaurant was comfortably crowded when we visited on a recent weeknight. Mirchi Wok, Mango Grove's sister restaurant, has made the trip, too. At the old location, Mango Grove and Mirchi Wok — which includes meat and seafood on its Indian menu of kebabs, curries and kormas — shared a kitchen but served meals in separate dining rooms.
Now the two restaurants operate together, but diners are issued two separate menus. Boy, that's confusing, and I don't think it's doing anyone any favors. If you're new to Mango Grove, you will find yourself a bit at sea, and ordering a meal feels like work.
The serving staff, which is kind but scattered in its approach, is reticent about offering advice. I wish we'd been told to consider ordering appetizers from the Mirchi Wok menu. Savory items like garlic shrimp and chicken-stuffed half-moon dumplings sound better than the things we ordered from the Mango Grove menu: banana-pepper fritters stuffed with spices and a drab appetizer sampler with samosas, pakoras, cauliflower patties and potato croquettes.
That's not the only reason why it took us a while to settle into our evening. The new space, formerly a Mongolian Grill, has been splashed with warm colors, but not much has been done to make the big rectangular space feel intimate. A drink would help take the edge off the fuzzy sunlight pouring through the back windows, but Mango Grove doesn't have its liquor license yet, and if you've forgotten to bring along your own beer or wine, the immediate neighborhood offers slim pickings.
But soon the sun goes down, the candlelit dining room settles into prettiness and, best of all, the dinner course arrives, bringing with it dishes of profoundly satisfying flavor, texture and clarity. The entrees are emphatic enough to convince you that Mango Grove will flourish in its new home, once it resolves what are really mechanical issues related to design and service.
There are the plate-size dosai, which are something to see. Eat them quickly, we were told, before the crepe loses the tongue-tingling buttery crispiness. Know that one dosai is big enough to share among four people. It's a little unwieldy to do so, though.
We tried the Dosai Feast, which introduces three basic variations on the theme. One is stuffed with the basic mixture of potatoes and shredded onions, garnished with chilies, peas and coriander leaves. There are variations to the crepe itself, too, which can be seasoned with peppers and spices. Another adds a layer of coconut and onion chutneys, and a third uses a chutney cheese stuffing instead. Accompanying these are chutneys and sambar, a lentil-based souplike side dish, which are meant to be used for dipping. Neighboring tables may watch to see if you're eating yours properly.
From a list of 17 curry dishes, the one billed as a favorite of the Kerala province intrigued us most. Avila is a curry of vegetables — carrots, beans and gourds — stewed in a coconut-and-yogurt gravy and seasoned with curry leaves and mild spices. This was a great choice, one of the most voluptuous vegetarian curries I've ever tried, made even better with good, fluffy basmati rice.
Dishes from the Mirchi Wok menu were impressive, too. They taste freshly prepared from quality ingredients, with none of the filmy blandness that characterizes so much Indian cuisine in America. For the Gunpowder Roast, chicken is basted in the house's own roasted chili powder mix and braised with red onions, coconuts and curry leaves. The lamb Shekua, chosen from the kebab section, are chunks of lamb coated in black pepper and roasted spices. There is a slight crispiness on the surface and impressively tender and juicy meat below.
A small dessert list includes syrupy and sweet confections like fried dough with cardamom syrup, almond-rice pudding and a mango-chocolate mousse. You're better off loading up on a side of homemade garlic naan or one of the other stuffed and seasoned breads.
Mango Grove's new home is an interchangeable Columbia office-retail park, so don't expect anything in the way of useful signage. Soon, Mango Grove will be getting a big new neighbor. Then you'll be able to tell your friends to meet you by that great Indian restaurant near the Wegmans. Hopefully, by then, Mango Grove will have its liquor license and some of its rough edges ironed out.
Where: 8865 Stanford Blvd., Columbia
Contact: 410-884-3426, themangogrove.net
Hours: Open daily for lunch and dinner
Prices: Appetizers, $4.95 -$11.95 ; entrees, $11.95 -$26.95
[Key: Outstanding: ✭✭✭✭; Good: ✭✭✭; Fair or Uneven: ✭✭; Poor: ✭]