Amma's Kitchen in Roselawn might be a heaven of sorts, but this isn't immediately obvious from its decor. Instead, the ambience says purgatory, with stiff maroon booths, beige walls, industrial carpeting and the plain, reception-hall formality typical of Indian restaurants.
Amma's Kitchen, which means "Mother's Kitchen" in Hindi, seems in need of a woman's touch. (There are only men in both the front and back of the house.)
The divine food, however, makes up for any lack of flair. I have a friend who often describes great food like this: "When I ate that lavender-infused muffin from The Greenup Café, a beam of light came down from heaven and shone on me, as well as the muffin."
If you really love Indian food, particularly vegetarian/vegan Indian food, don't be surprised if you go to lunch or dinner at Amma's Kitchen and have a similar religious-conversion experience.
While you might not see Christ or Parvati, you'll at least really enjoy the authentic Indian vegetarian cuisine with an emphasis on southern snacks such as Dosa (rice crepes), Vada (fried lentil donuts) and Idli (steamed rice cakes). Dishes rely heavily on lentils, rice and coconut milk, are often hot and spicy and are full of surprises such as cream of wheat, coconut chutney and roasted green plantains
Visiting Amma's for both lunch and dinner, we tried almost everything. Both times we left feeling as if we'd been plunged into a sensory feast.
Amma's is a good place to experience all of the six Ayurvedic tastes -- sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter and astringent -- in one meal. We began with the sweet: cooling drinks. The Badam Kheer ($3.49) -- which features ground almonds, milk and sugar -- was an antioxidant delight rich in dark, spicy cardamom and the Mango Lassi ($2.49), a frothy milkshake, conjured tropical vacations and mindless frolicking.
The Lunch Buffet ($7.99) that followed was nothing short of exciting. My friend -- the one who describes great food as "light coming from the heavens"-- joined me, and we tasted many earthly delights, starting with Dosas ($5.99). You can get these thin rice crepes filled with almost anything, from vegetables and noodles to marinara sauce and pasta.
We started with the Masala Dosa ($6.99), which was recommended by the owner: a giant crepe filled with a dab of potatoes and peas, seasoned with mustard seed and turmeric. (Think fried Vegetable Samosa filling but without the grease.)
Next we tried a variety of chutneys. Some of these dipping sauces for Indian treats -- Vada, Idli and Dosas -- were standard, but others were surprising. The cool mint, sweet tamarind and pungent onion were typical, but the coconut chutney was a slightly sweet revelation. The Raitha -- whipped yogurt with tomato, cucumber, carrot and coriander -- tamed the flames of some of the spicier dishes peppered with red and green chilies that can go to the head.
Unique buffet dishes that weren't on the menu included Vegetable Uppuma (vegetables and nuts in cream of wheat) and Vegetable Mughlai, which the owner proudly introduced as "the royal dish," eaten by kings and queens, when he gave us a tour of the buffet. (We asked for it.) It was easy to see why -- the deep and savory cream-based sauce carried cumin, and coriander flavors went straight to the heart.
Dinner at Amma's Kitchen was just as satisfying, leading to finds like Vegetable Korma ($7.99), rich in coconut with strong hints of coriander, cinnamon and cardamom. (The heat was successfully cut with Raitha.) Of the rice dishes, only the Tamarind Rice ($6.99) was a disappointment. Described as hot and tangy with peanuts, the flavor was dull with a sour aftertaste.
We finished the night off with Kulfi Falooda ($3.99), a homemade Indian ice cream with rose milk that offered a floral bouquet with a hint of syrup and vermicelli noodles for texture. The Masala Tea ($1.99), reminiscent of Chai, was warm and alive with ginger, spices and rich cream.
At the end of the night, I felt as if I'd traveled to the region and back again, the mark of a great ethnic restaurant.
AMMA'S KITCHEN Critics Pick
Go: 7633 Reading Road, Roselawn
Hours: Lunch buffet: 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Monday-Friday; 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday-Sunday. Dinner a la carte: 5:30-9:30 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 5:30-10 p.m. Friday-Sunday
Buffet/Entree Prices: $5.99-$7.99
Payment: All major credit cards
Red Meat Alternatives: Purely vegetarian cuisine