Judging by the bustle, vegetarians have already discovered the Mango Grove, which serves "pure vegetarian" South Indian cuisine in what looks like a renovated fast-food restaurant in Columbia. It's an unlikely setting, far from any mango groves we know, but the restaurant otherwise appears to be entirely authentic.
The Mango Grove's large menu abounds with mysteries (dosai, oothappam and vadai), or at least they are mysteries to us, though we are longtime habitues of Baltimore's Indian restaurants. Fortunately, the menu also devotes a page to a pictorial guide to the "tastes of India." And scattered throughout, there are helpful definitions of terms and tastes that may be unfamiliar to Westerners.
Meat-lovers, beware -- you don't have to be a vegetarian to eat at the Mango Grove, but you won't see the seafood or poultry selections that sometimes appear on "vegetarian" menus. The Mango Grovetruly devotes its menu to starches and vegetables, offered in an amazing number of combinations.
Many of these dishes are also vegan, eschewing the use of even dairy products, such as milk and cheese. Which isn't to say that any of Mango Grove's offerings are bland, unfilling or leave you with a desire to drop by the Wendy's across the parking lot.
As the menu's introduction points out, South Indian cuisine endeavors to marry and balance essential flavors such as sweet, sour, salty, bitter, piquant and pungent. The result, at least from the Mango Grove's kitchen, left our palates and stomachs fulfilled and left us perhaps a little self-satisfied for having eaten so healthfully to boot.
Our appetizers -- dhal vadai, vegetable pakoda and rasam vadai -- were somewhat less than promising and at least one of us was concerned that our dinner would be entirely composed of "twigs and sticks."
As it turns out, we were wrong about the rest of the dinner, but the rasam vadai, for instance, threw us for a (temporary) loop. The menu description -- fried white lentil doughnuts soaked in rasam -- conjured a laughably inaccurate vision for the diner among us who ordered it, the word doughnut being rather loosely used.
Rasam is a classic South Indian soup of mashed lentils and many spices, such as chilies, cumin, coriander seed and turmeric. Served cold -- surprisingly and refreshingly cold -- it was sour, complex and good. The vadai, the doughnut, is more akin to a crumbly, mealy bagel, and you get two.
Dhal vadai, another fried lentil appetizer, is a nutritious, leaden lump, though an adequate partner to Mango Grove's delicious coriander-green sauce and wonderful brown sauce.
The pakoda was a handful of julienne vegetables fried into a sweet, light and crunchy fritter and paired -- excellently -- with the sauces.
The entrees were far more promising, with the portions so generous that we ate leftovers for days.
Oothappams are a kind of rice and lentil flour pancake, cooked until light brown. We shared one that had bell pepper and paneer (buttermilk cheese) added to the batter. It was light, pleasantly chewy and had a wonderful flavor.
A dosa is a crepe, made from a similar rice and lentil batter but cooked until dark brown, shiny and smooth. Ours was filled with potato and onion masala, a wonderful, spicy mashed-potato mixture.
We also split a wonderful curry of okra cooked in tomatoes and onion, as well as a dish of curd rice, akin to the yogurt sauce called raita.
Desserts were flavorful and entirely unusual. "Madras special payasam," tiny noodles boiled in sweet milk with coconut and raisins, was a kind of dessert soup with a texture that received mixed reactions at our table, though we all liked its complex flavor. We also tried mango ice cream with a different kind of sundae topping: badam halwa, a paste of almonds, honey and butter that went well with the mango.
Judging by the many different generations we saw dining at the Mango Grove, folks clearly think the restaurant is a pleasant place to gather. It also is reasonably priced. For about $60, three of us received enough food for at least five people. And, furthermore, we got a healthy, flavorful and altogether noble alternative to yet another meal of Lean Cuisine.
The Mango Grove
6365 Dobbin Road, Columbia
Hours: Open daily for lunch and dinner except Tuesdays
Credit cards: American Express, Mastercard, Visa
Prices: Appetizers, $1.95 - $7.95; entrees, $5.95 - $16.95
Service: ** 1/2
Atmosphere: ** 1/2
Ratings system: Outstanding: ****; Good ***; Fair or uneven **; Poor *