Thursday, March 01, 2007

A Thali and a Meze

Variety is the spice of life, right? I love meals where I can taste a lot of different things. Small plates venues, such as Spanish tapas bars, Venetian cicchetterias and Hong Kong dim sum parlors are among my favorite types of restaurants. I also love combination meals and mixed appetizer plates. During my recent visit to the Bay Area I had an excellent South Indian thali and a world-class Turkish meze.

* * *

Indian cuisine, like Chinese, has a vast range of regional variations, and Americans only know the tip of the iceberg. I was excited to read, several months ago, about a South Indian restaurant in the Bay Area serving Andhra-style cuisine, which I have not seen in New York. Tirupathi Bhimas is a vegetarian restaurant that features Andhra, Tamil and Udipi (or Udupi) dishes in Milpitas, near San Jose. The South Bay area is a treasure trove of Asian cuisines. It's almost excuse enough to find my way to San Jose for a week.

President's Day weekend found the Bay Area enjoying an amazing Indian summer. It was 77 and sunny when we got to Milpitas. I made the trip down with my old friend Robert Lauriston, who happens to be an excellent food writer. The lunch was also an opportunity to meet Bay Area food blogger Sam Breach of Becks and Posh and her sidekick Fred.

Though thalis were the order of the day, we also split some other dishes. The onion-chili uthappam (a rice-flour pancake) was good if unexceptional. We found the rasa vada (lentil donuts in pepper soup) too soggy. Pesarattu was a new one on me, and I've been to South India three times. It's a mung bean (moong dal) crepe, similar to a dosa, that is eaten in Andhra Pradesh. We had ours stuffed with uppuma (or upma), a South Indian spiced cream of wheat that's similar to couscous. I'm wild for upma, but this one was rather bland, and I found the pesarattu less satisfying than the more common dosa.

The spicy Andhra thali, however, was quite good. A thali is usually served on a round metal tray on which little metal bowls filled with a variety of dishes are placed. The word thali can also refer to the serving ware itself. In South India one can get similar dishes at informal "meals" joints, where the food (all you can eat) is ladled onto a banana leaf, which serves as a disposable plate.

Andhra cuisine is considered one of the spiciest of Indian cuisines, but I've had vegetarian food in Rajahstan that is equally incendiary. While the majority of the items in the Tirupathi Bhimas thali were indeed spicy, they were definitely milder than one might get in India, even though almost all the customers were Indian. The different dishes all had distinctive flavors and textures, which made for a satisfying meal.

* * *

San Francisco has many fewer Turkish restaurants than New York, but A La Turca, in the traditionally seedy Tenderloin, serves pides, and pidephile that I am, I decided it deserved a visit. The pide was actually disappointing, but the meze more than made up for it.

Mezes are combination plates of appetizers that one finds across the Mediterranean and Middle East, the dishes varying by region. On menus in the U.S. one will often see them listed as "mixed appetizers" or "combo platter" (as it's called at A La Turca). The A La Turca version consisted of nine items, all vegetarian cold appetizers. There wasn't a loser in the bunch, but several really stood out. Our favorite was the mercimek koftesi, a vegetarian "meatball" (see the etymology of kofte) made of bulgur wheat, red lentils, onions, parsley, tomato paste, spices, lemon juice and olive oil (it's the football-shaped thing in the rear of the plate). The ezme, a spicy red pepper salad was also a standout. The stuffed grape leaves were a cut above the average, and appeared to have been made with basmati rice.

The rest of the meal was a letdown. We had a chicken and mushroom pide, which I hadn't come across on any New York Turkish menus. It was tame in flavor and the dough was a bit underbaked. The spinach and cheese gozleme was a bigger disappointment. Gozleme was described as "flat bread served with veggies or meat." It turned to be what I'd call a turkish quesadilla. The very sharp feta cheese completely overwhelmed the poor defenseless spinach.

Based on the quality of the meze I would certainly return to A La Turca and try other dishes: grilled meat, I guess, because surprisingly there is no seafood on the menu.

Tirupathi Bhimas on UrbanspoonA la Turca on Urbanspoon


Anonymous elle said...

great post...i love interesting foods off the beaten path.

5:40 PM  
Anonymous Sushma said...

A very nice writeup.. I am also a big fan of Tirupti Bhimas

9:58 PM  

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