Woodlands Restaurant Gets Top Marks For Originality

Penny Flood Reviews the Chiswick branch of this South Indian vegetarian chain

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Woodlands Restaurant

12 -14 Chiswick High RoadLondon W4 1TH

Tel. 020 8994 9333

Woodlands Restaurant, at the end of Chiswick High Road just before it turns into King Street, has a venerable history. It is part of a worldwide chain of South Indian restaurants that has been in business for over 30 years.

Being South Indian, as you’d expect, it’s vegetarian, but it’s a cut above the Ravi Shankar and the other South Indian restaurants of Euston’s Drummond Street or the café style ones in King Street.

Woodlands is sophisticated and elegant with soft lighting and intriguing carvings around the walls. And it’s exciting because, unless you are a habitué of South India restaurants, the menu will be largely unfamiliar compared to the usual vegetable dishes you get in Indian restaurants. Samosa, channa, dhal, saag paneer are there but so are more exotic sounding dishes such as potato palya, kancheepuram idli, rasa vada and paneer pakoda. And that’s before we get to the deserts!

There are two main specialities. ‘Dosas’, of which there are two varieties - fermented rice and lentils which are crispy, and cream of wheat which are soft. And ‘uthappams’ which are a sort of pizza, also made from fermented lentils and rice. But there’s a lot more to Woodlands’ menu than that.

Before going on, a word of warning. The spices and flavours of this cuisine are different from your regular curry houses. That’s not to say they can’t have kick, but you need to be prepared for something a bit different if you haven’t tried a similar restaurant before. The dominant flavouring is of tamarind and coconut but they aren’t overpowering and there are plenty of dishes without those two ingredients if they are not to your liking.

To begin with there’s a wide choice of shuraat or first courses. These include dahi vada (lentil doughnuts in yoghurt), potato bonda (spicy fried potatoes), cashew nut pakoda (cashews in a spicy crunchy batter), and upma (spiced cream of wheat with nuts and a ‘special’ red chutney).

There’s also a big section of chaat snack dishes: sev poori (tiny pizzas with onions, yogurt and tamarind chutney), aloo papdi chaat (potato with green chilli and tamarind chutney), dahi bateta poori (a crispy pastry stuffed with potato, yogurt and coriander chutney), aloo tikki (potato cutlets with chickpeas) and paneer pakoda (fried cottage cheese).

We settled for a bhel poori and a combo of idli (steamed rice and lentil puffs) and medu vada (fried lentil doughnuts respectively). The combination dish was much tastier than it might sound. The medu vada doughnuts were particularly delicious - as promised, fluffy in the middle and crisp on the outside and great to dip in the accompanying sambar and coconut chutneys. The bhel poori was a dish of crushed pastry with spicy potatoes and puffed rice with a sweet and sour tamarind sauce, I enjoyed it but but my co-feaster found it disappointing. ‘Not like the Bhel Poori House’, he said, eyes misting over remembering his trips to Drummond Street in his (relative) youth.

Prices for starters are very reasonable, between £3.95 and £5.25. There is also sharing platter for £12.50

And then on to the mains. The dosas are huge and golden and they come with all sorts of fillings and dipping sauces - great for sharing, great for keeping to yourself if you’re hungry. The uthappams are served plain with side dishes of sambar and coconut chutney and a choice of toppings such as coconut, tomato, onions and chilli, all livened up with spices.

But it’s not all dosas and uthappams, there’s a good selection of vegetable dishes. We ordered vegetable kootu (garden vegetables in creamy cashew nut sauce), sooki sabsi (vegetable of the day cooked with toordal, coconut and spices), fried dhal which was spiced with ginger, lemon and green chilli, and a bathura which I can only describe as a football of puffed fried Indian bread. It was light and fresh and delicious. The only bum note for me was the sooki sabsi, in spite of its charming name. The problem was that the vegetable of the day was okra, which I don’t like, but that was my own fault for not checking first. The sauce it came in was great and ideal for dipping bits of the rapidly deflating football.

We also had the house speciality, which we were assured is one of the most popular dosas - the grand sounding Onion Rava Masala Dosa. It was a soft cream of wheat pancake satisfyingly stuffed with sautéed onions, green chillies, potato, peas and onion. We understood why it is so popular.

Main courses are also reasonably priced at between £4.75 and £6.50

And then it was time for deserts, a selection with fairy tale names, from old favourites like rasmalai, gulab jamun and kulfi to mysterious strangers like shrikand, sheera and badam halway. We settled for a shared mango kulfi, which was a creamy delight.

But the one sweet that caught my eye and made me resolve to forgo a starter next time was the jaggery dosa - a golden butter dosa smothered with warm sugar cane and served with ice cream. “Dull would he be of soul who could pass by a pud so touching in its majesty”, as Wordsworth almost said.

The bill came to just over £45 for two, included a strong Cobra beer and a mineral water. For wine drinkers there is a reasonable looking wine list.


Penny Flood

June 15, 2007