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UDIPI CAFÉ ~ casual ****
1850 Lawrenceville Highway
Decatur, GA 30033
Phone: (404) 325-1933
Fax: (404) 325-1932

Udipi Cafe, named after a region in Southern India, offers a variety of fare that differs in vernacular and ingredients from countless other meatless Indian joints in the same locale of Larwencville Highway/Decatur. Even educated diners will find that the cool yogurt/cucumber dip commonly known as Raita is dubbed Pachadi here. Instead of Naan, the bread staple at Udipi is Batura, a huge puffed pastry magically filled with air that, once exploded with a knife, leaves behind a punched-down pillow of satisfying bread. Though no beer, wine or animal products are served, even the hedonistic (especially the hedonistic) will leave sated without spending more than one would eating fast food fodder.

MENU: ****
The menu demands much to be explained, even for those familiar with vegeteraian Indian eateries. Nonetheless, it presents a variety of dishes priced affordably enough to risk the unknown. Novices might start by sampling Udipi's lunch buffet to get a quick education about curries, condiments and quick breads dished up as staple stuff of South Indian cuisine. The combination meals featured are great to share, though they fail to mix the fried lentil doughnut and bready stuff with vegetable curries, which would be the perfect sort of combo. Regardless, it's hard to find fault in such an exotic effort.

The food is consistently exotic. A delicious dive into the unknown for newcomers. Repeat visitors will find that the more you know, the better it gets. Though many dishes stand up well on their own accord, this cuisine is most affordable and best experienced when dining with many friends where sharing provides the ability to sample not only a dish of just spinach and cheese, but also puffed bread, cilantro hot sauce, pea and potato stuffed samosas, rice pilafs (Pullavs), chick pea flour fried crepes, et al.

All dishes are attractively arranged and served in a variety of shaped silver bowls, which makes me feel sorry for the dishwasher but happy to have so many tiny trays full of colorful condiments.

Upidi is by far the largest Southern Indian dining room of any Indian restaurant like it. This often leaves it feeling a bit sterile when there are few diners. There is little in indigenous Indian decor displayed. Frequented mostly by Eastern Indians, Westerners will quickly bond with other novices – all asking each other what that big pancake thing they ordered is called. Which all makes up for the downplayed decor.

This is by far the cleanest Indian cafe I've visited in this enclave of like restaurants. Though the atmosphere is sterile, the plates and condiments are similarly cleansed.

The origin, owners and ideologies of Udipi Cafe remain a mystery, even after asking. The waitrons are mechanical but efficient and will answer inquiries without being defensive.

The assorted appetizers, at under $7, could easily be a light meal for two. The combo is bready and fried (lightly but not greasy, however). The vegetable samosa and Mysore Bonda (lentil dumpling) are delicious, but the Vegetaqule cutlet and Medhu Vada (fried donuts of veggies) is a bit like overcooked Southern soul food. The condiments are the best part of the mix. A cilantro/mint hot sauce, a sweet-but-not-cloying barbeque condiment, a coconut dipping delight and a spicy lentil soup all provide color and texture that would lend promise to white Wonderbread. Ignore the homemade tomato soup (tastes like canned stuff and is topped with bad croutons) and specify if you can't take spicy stuff. The Masala Dpsao (crepes filled with potatoes and onions), PalakPaneer (spinach and cheese), Batura (the puffy bread bigger than your head) and any Uthappam (Indian Pancakes) are a sure bet.

Though the surroundings and service are somewhat sterile, the food is fabulous and affordable.

review by Maureen McCarthy