Monsoon Magic

Indian food worth the trip, even in the rain, at a charming Memphis mainstay.

Every time I headed to Mayuri Indian Cuisine this month, a relentless spring rain pounded down on me the entire way there and stuck around throughout my meal. But the food there is so unusual, so exquisitely flavored and knowingly spiced, that I was happy to wait out the downpours and draw out my meals by ordering spicy hot tea spiked with cardamom or trying just one more spot-on dessert. I actually felt sad when the rain dwindled. My uncanny experience mirrors the monsoon magic that a girl visiting India discovers during its rainy season in Mitali Perkins' novel Monsoon Summer. The seasonal downpours' transformative effect helps the narrator learn to dance, to love, and yes, to cook. She labors over rich curries and pooris, and she brews that same addictive spiced tea I myself lingered over as Mayuri's windows wept rain. Reading the lovely descriptions of Indian food in this novel inspired me to get out there and explore the real thing. >>>

Located in a sleepy little strip mall at Quince and Kirby after a short stint years ago in the long-gone Admiral Benbow Inn on Union, Mayuri is producing traditional North and South Indian dishes with a few Americanized twists; it has become my go-to stop for the ever-changing buffet at lunch and its well-priced thali dinners.

At Mayuri, the men run the register and wait on the customers, and the women do the impeccable cooking. They sweep out of the kitchen in their beautiful saris and replenish the buffet every few minutes, and diners pounce on the new items as soon as they are available.

I ordered a mango lassi and watched all of this unfold. A lassi is a creamy yogurt-and-mango shake suited for pairing with spicy food, and the lassi at Mayuri is far superior to any other I've tried. With its sharp mango tang and just-right amount of sweetness, the lassi would also be a fitting dessert. The iced tea is singular as well; it features a hint of spice and is unlike the run-of-the-mill, over-sweetened iced tea that we've all grown accustomed to in the South.

Mayuri's buffet is plain in presentation but lavish in its offerings. (Even if one isn't very familiar with traditional Indian cooking, many recognizable meats and vegetables offer reassurance.) The chicken makhani, shredded and steeped in a rich tomato-cream sauce, is a standout, as is the goat curry, in a buttery, smoky brown sauce that's layered with flavor. My dining companion loved the mushroom masala with its hit of coconut milk, and the upma, spiced cream of wheat used in place of rice.

Still undecided after looking over the dessert selections, I chose small portions of three sweet items. Gulab jamun, fried balls of dough kept soft and warm and bathed in a clear, sweet syrup, were comforting and doughnut-like. The mango salad consists of chopped mango and red apples in melted orange sorbet —the fruit is enhanced by its mellowed sweetness. My favorite was the rice kheer, a thin pudding of steamed cream and milk with vermicelli, raisins, and tapioca pearls sprinkled throughout. There are myriad choices to explore, and the buffet is reasonably priced, providing a solid, affordable introduction to this cuisine.

We also tried a couple of the Madras Specialties at lunch. Uttapam, a light, fresh, oversized pancake that features onions and cilantro leaves, is great for sharing. There are also many dosas to try — a bit heavier but worth it. We opted for the masala dosa, a giant, thin rice crepe filled with curried potatoes and vegetables. It extends over both sides of the plate in a comically generous portion, and a bowl of sambar, a broth-based lentil soup, is provided for dipping.

Dinner at Mayuri gave us a chance to go all out and try a couple of new dishes as well as some variations on old favorites. I recommend choosing an appetizer or two and then opting for the thali dinner entrees; the components of this dinner are presented in separate round bowls arranged on a steel tray. For an additional two dollars to the cost of the entrée, we received a veritable feast: dal, sambar, vegetable curry, raita, naan, papadums, rice, and dessert. There is also a first-timer's special that pulls together dishes as a sort of beginner's sampler platter.

We dipped the golden samosas into mint chutney, and sighed when their crisp and buttery crust gave way to a steaming potato-and-green-pea filling. Papadums with three sauces— mint, tomato tamarind, and coconut — reminded me of an Indian version of chips and salsa.

The egg biryani featured savory rice liberally spiced with cardamom and cinnamon with halved boiled eggs nestled underneath and wedges of lemon and onions on the side. An egg curry was provided, to be poured over the rice just before eating.

The lamb curry was gamey in a good way; the accompanying curry sauce deep and balanced, with dark toasted spices and a buttery texture. Aloo paratha, naan bread stuffed with curried potatoes, peas, and carrots, was a great complement to this dark, rich curry. Our sides included aloo fry, green beans with a little crunch to them and raita, a yogurt sauce. We were pleased with dinner, and that we were able to try so many different things for around $50.

Recently, I discovered that the word "mayuri" means "peacock," and it's a fitting image for this restaurant. The male peacock's sudden flash of showy plumage and its look-at-me grab for attention can be related to the restaurant's astounding variety of dishes and perfectly spiced flavors. The atmosphere at Mayuri, however, is like the less striking female peacock, relegated to the background. The quaint decorations grew on me, though, because I have an inkling that they were selected with care, and I imagine there must be some singular stories about their acquisition. Curious paintings beg for a closer look, chrysanthemum wreaths drape the paintings by the cash register, and bright, happy, but obviously fake flowers festoon the buffet and burst from tiny white vases on each table. Peacocks, of course, abound.

Fair warning: Don't visit Mayuri if service is your main focus. At Mayuri, it varies from curt to faintly polite, and no one is going to butter you up. There may also be somewhat of a language barrier, but it is nothing that can't be overcome with good humor and patience. Be sure to ask for suggestions as you go over Mayuri's comprehensive and detailed menu; since there are 12 sections and multiple variations of similar dishes, it helps to have some guidance. It really comes down to this: If you're comfortable with a no-nonsense focus on excellent food and quick but unfawning service, Mayuri is a good fit.

Mayuri is the real thing, as evidenced by the broad spectrum of diners enjoying their meals every time I visited. It's as authentic and charming as it gets, so don't wait for the next Memphis monsoon to hit before you head to Mayuri.

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