In an auspicious development for Nashville, the number of local vegetarian restaurants has doubled in the last several months. But before the herbivore crowd gets too excited, here’s the skinny: instead of one exclusively vegetarian eatery—Grins, on the Vanderbilt campus—we now have two.
On second thought, go ahead and get excited. Woodlands Indian Vegetarian Cuisine, which opened last October in the Continental apartment building at West End and 440, is a welcome arrival not just for vegetarians but for all lovers of Indian food. Occupying what Nashville foodies had come to view as a doomed location (both Way Out West Cafe and Peacock Vietnamese restaurant failed in the same space), Woodlands appears already to have broken the curse. No magic potions were involved, though—just good food, good service and a niche that, in Nashville anyway, is criminally underserved.
Co-owner and chef Santosh Kotian got the idea to open Woodlands after spending a few years managing an Indian vegetarian restaurant in Charlotte, N.C. He came across the location on the Internet and, in a leap of faith, moved to a new city and opened a new restaurant within a matter of weeks. Attracted to Nashville in part due to the presence of Sri Ganesha Temple and Hindu Cultural Center of Tennessee, he says that Nashville’s friendliness, sizable Indian population and dearth of vegetarian eateries also figured in his decision.
In fact, according to Kotian, Woodlands is the first Indian vegetarian restaurant in the state of Tennessee. But don’t be put off by the “vegetarian” designation: over three visits, none of the eight diners in our parties was vegetarian, yet the food was on the whole enthusiastically received.
Kotian and his sister, Sunita Pradhan, who also works at Woodlands, are from the coastal town of Udipi, in the Southern Indian state of Karnataka. Thus the focus is on Southern Indian cuisine, which is heavily reliant on rice and lentils. Regional items available at Woodlands include iddly (rice-and-lentil cakes, steamed or fried), dosa (rice-and-lentil crepes with various fillings) and uthappam (large, dense rice-and-lentil pancakes served with assorted toppings), as well as traditional Indian curries.
Of the appetizers we sampled (there are 21 on the menu), a couple of clear favorites emerged. The samosa chat adds a twist to the traditional Indian potato turnover, chopping it up and covering it with onions, a sweet-and-sour sauce and fried noodles. The iddly Manchurian was a surprise, and a delectable one at that—consisting of fried rice patties in a ginger-garlic-soy sauce, the dish offered flavors typically associated with Chinese food. The potato bonda, similar to a knish, was a great vehicle for sampling assorted chutneys and the addictive tamarind sauce. The only appetizer to get an apathetic response was the vegetable pakora, which was a little dry and doughy—though most of it still got eaten.
The entrées are divided into five main categories: dosa, uthappam, curries, pullavs (rice dishes) and specialties. There are two main types of dosa: the standard dosa is made from rice flour and lentil flour and has a uniform consistency, much like a typical crepe; the rava dosa is made with cream of wheat and has a textured, almost mosaic-like appearance. All are served with sambar (a tangy vegetable-and-lentil stew) and coconut chutney, and all the ones we sampled were wonderful; the butter masala dosa (cooked with butter and filled with potato and spices) and the paneer rava masala dosa (filled with cooked cottage cheese and spices) were particular standouts.
The 20 curries cover a lot of territory and include dishes featuring potatoes, spinach, chickpeas, tomatoes, lentils, okra, green peas, cauliflower and mushrooms. Highlights include the aloo gobi (potatoes and cauliflower in a tomato-based curry) and baigan barta (creamy baked eggplant with onion, tomato and spices). We ordered this last dish hot, and the kitchen complied; there was plenty of kick, though not so much as to overpower the more subtle flavors. The only disappointment was the gobi Manchurian, a dish of fried cauliflower slathered in garlic-ginger-soy sauce. As much as we’d enjoyed the iddly in the same sauce on a prior visit, this time the cook used too heavy a hand with the soy, rendering it far too salty.
Indian food is very diverse, and the many cooking styles and flavors represented on the Woodlands menu encourage repeated visits. If you’re a first-timer and overwhelmed by the choices, head straight to the specialties category. The ones we tried were divine. Malabar adai, a mixed-lentil pancake with vegetables and cilantro on top, had a delightfully aromatic flavor and subtle texture. The pesarat uppma resembled a dosa, except that the batter was made exclusively from lentil flour; the uppma filling inside consisted of cream of wheat seasoned with onions and chilies. Uppma can also be ordered as a stand-alone dish, with peas and nuts added, and is a fine example of the savory porridges that Indians prepare in their home cooking.
Prices at Woodlands are quite reasonable: entrées range from $5.25 to $7.95, and there are a number of dinner special combinations, ranging from $12.95 to $16.95, that include everything from soup and appetizers all the way through dessert and coffee. A $6.95 lunch buffet is available from 11 a.m. to 2:45 p.m. and features breads, appetizers, pullavs, curries and desserts; the buffet lineup changes each day to keep things interesting for regular customers. Dosas are made fresh and brought out to buffet diners. The full menu is also available at lunch. The minimal interior design might benefit from a little more investment, but any shortcomings in Woodlands’ decor are far outweighed by the exquisite and varied flavors that abound there.
In addition to doing most of the cooking, Kotian has been busy with his rapidly expanding catering business. Last week, he had eight parties to prepare for; the previous week, he served food at a birthday party for 400 people. Unlike the other restaurants that tried to make it in this same location, the future looks bright for Woodlands—and for Nashville’s vegetarians and fans of Indian cuisine.