Meat's retreat: Veggies star at Maruthi

The moniker of the restaurant next to Integral Yoga natural foods has been spinning in recent months. After Veggie Heaven closed its eight-year run last fall, two new concepts came... and went. But with Maruthi, a new South Indian vegetarian restaurant in Preston Plaza, Integral Yoga may have found its culinary compliment.

The owners of Maruthi, Jaya S. Tiwari and Sridevi S. Prasad live at Yogaville, the Scottsville-area ashram that operates Integral Yoga. Maruthi celebrates the vegetarian lifestyle that has been particularly vibrant in South India for centuries.

If you wonder about an Indian restaurant without popular dishes like chicken tikka masala or lamb vindaloo, Maruthi may convince you that such a menu is indeed possible– maybe even preferable.

In South India (Tiwari is from Bangalore and his wife from Chennai), cooks use spices, aromatic herbs, and chutneys to transform intricate mixtures of vegetables, lentils, and rice into delicious meals and snacks that leave you feeling light and energized, not stuffed.

"This is very healthy home-cooked food, very easy to digest," Sridevi says as she patiently explains each of the 15-or so items on the menu board. The couple's bright-eyed three-and-a-half year old son, who has never tasted a hamburger or chicken nugget, plays quietly in the still largely unadorned space. All the better to focus on the food.

Two or three minutes after placing my order, Sridevi serves the first lentil and rice concoction, idly, two soft steamed rice pancakes floating in a shallow pool of sambar, or red lentil and fresh coconut soup. The rice and lentils must be soaked for one day before being stone-ground, just a hint of the extensive preparation time required for most of the key ingredients in this fascinating cuisine. A plate of sprouted lentils with a hint of hot pepper comes out next, and Srideva tells me this quick-to-serve dish actually takes three days to make.

The yogurt for my mango lassi (an Indian smoothie) was also made in-house, as is the masala yogurt with ginger, garlic, and cumin seeds.

My next surprise came in the form of a foot-long dosa, an crisp and chewy (and addictive) rice and lentil crepe. Maruthi's griddle-cooked masala dosa is rolled around a soft potato mixture and accompanied by little cups of cilantro coconut chutney and sambar. Golden, delicately spicy uttapam are rice and lentil pancakes made with onion and cumin seeds and served with a hot onion chutney.

With such variety, it's hard to imagine what creations lie in store for Maruthi diners. The couple, who share kitchen duties, have about 500 recipes in their collection, which they will slowly debut. Since Maruthi is currently open 7 days for lunch (11:30-2) and dinner (5:30-9pm), the couple will likely need an extra hand, so Tiwari is currently searching for another cook in India.


Seafood: surviving the hurricanes

 We've all seen the impact of the recent hurricanes at the gas pump, but what about at restaurants and food counters?

Chris Arseneault, owner of Seafood at West Main, which services a number of area restaurants as well as retail customers at its Main Street Market shop, is all too aware of the devastating impact Katrina and Rita have had on the commercial seafood industry. Tuna, oysters, crabmeat, and shrimp production suffered the most when the Gulf was hit.

"All of my suppliers, mainly family-owned small business, are anxious to rebuild and recover," Arseneault says. "They're rugged individuals and understand the wrath of Mother Nature."

Seafood at West Main is recovering, too, both by obtaining products from other areas and through its expanding selection of semi-prepared, gourmet seafood items. Smoked salmon spread, crab and salmon cakes, shrimp salad, and Carolina catfish with Cajun-style crawfish stuffing are just a few of the calming offerings.

Indian Veggie Heaven: Jaya Tiwari and Sridevi Prasad of Maruthi