Nalapak (Columbia Heights, MN)
Nalapak is the new name for Udupi Cafe, the long-beloved Indian vegetarian restaurant in Columbia Heights. There's a new owner, but the menu is exactly the same. Unfortunately, there are new cooks in the kitchen and the food was not nearly as good as it was the last time we'd been in.
Gobi manghuriani has long been our favorite dish, and it's still good. It's cauliflower florets, marinated and then cooked in a delicious spice blend. The pieces are a brilliant red and so hearty and substantial that you almost believe this is a meat dish.
We liked the special vegetable curry: a mixture of vegetables in a yellow curry sauce. We also liked the dal fry maharani, which is a lentil dish cooked in Indian spices. These aren't standouts the way the gobi manghuriani is, but they are competent versions of basic South Indian cooking.
After that, it gets harder to suggest dishes. The dal palak, a spinach and lentil dish, fell flat. The vegetable korma, ordered mild, was tasteless and boring.
Dosai are a traditionally South Indian comfort food, the sort of breakfast you might get in Channai. These crepe-like dishes were once terribly exotic in the Twin Cities, because the dishes from the south of India weren't as common as the tandooris and vindaloos that introduced Indian cuisine to many of us. Dosai are now available in many Indian restaurants around the metro area, and Nalapak's version was fine, but nothing special.
Unfortunately, we were expecting special. Indian food can be incredibly flavorful. The spices are complex, and in the hands of a skilled cook, the flavors remain distinct even as they blend. Too many of Nalapak's offerings tasted like the overly blended dishes you can get at mediocre Indian restaurants anywhere.
And the spice level has gone down considerably. You're asked if you want your dishes mild, medium, or hot. Mild is truly bland, and medium is barely spiced. If you want any kick to your food at all, you have to order it hot. And that is still at the low end of what we consider to be spicy.
Even the fried appetizers weren't as good as we wanted. The exceptions are the vegetable samosas, which were packed with potatoes and peas and were both flavorful and spicy; and the savory lentil donuts called medhu vada. The paneer pakora fried cheese appetizer tasted mostly like the grease from a State Fair minidonut machine. This was actually a bit of a selling point.
A dozen years ago, the Twin Cities were a wasteland of Indian cuisine -- there weren't any restaurants worth recommending. Udupi Cafe was among the first truly exceptional local Indian restaurants. It was certainly the first Indian vegetarian restaurant that we were willing to take out-of-town guests to. Now we have more choice, and some of the newer restaurants, especially those in the south-metro area, are our top picks for Indian food.
If You Go: Nalapak
Location: 4920 Central Av. NE. , Columbia Heights
Contact: 763-574-1113 , www.nalapak.com
Hours: 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and 5:30-10 p.m.
Service: Friendly and efficient
Sound level: Not too noisy
Recommended dishes: Gobi manghuriani
Prices: Entrees from $7 to $10
Children: One special children's entree