Our trip to Kerala and Goa opened our eyes to the world of vegetarian food. The range of interesting and complex dishes we had that contained no meat or fish was astonishing. By the end of our trip we had stopped thinking of food in terms of a piece of protein plus some veggies and instead just enjoyed what was in front of us. In Kerala it is meat eaters who are the odd ones out, to the extent that places that serve meat are referred to as "non-vegetarian".
So when we arrived at Kastoori, a vegetarian Indian restaurant in Tooting, I got rather excited and tried to order almost everything on the menu. Luckily the waiter stepped in and very purposefully told me to not be greedy and calm down! Weirdly, I quite enjoyed being put back in my place by a stranger with a notepad and a mustache. Let's hope it's not a strange fetish that's beginning to rise to the surface! Luckily the waiter did allow us to order two of the best named dishes I've ever come across: Dahi Puri and the "not-un-Star-Warsy" Dahi Vada which I imagined arriving with a light saber and black mask.
The Dahi Puri are one of Kastoori's signature dishes. The menu describes them as "taste-bombs" which does a pretty good job of bringing them to life. Crispy shells are filled with "diced potatoes, chick peas, puffed rice, onions, pani sauce, sweet and sour sauce and topped with yoghurt sauce". I can't remember the flavours much, but the textural experience was sublime.
Dahi Vada was far more fun to ask for than to eat, which was to be expected. I found the yoghurty sauce a bit overwhelming and made a beeline instead for the bhajis...
... which were sensational. Crisp, savoury and no-where near as greasy as they tend to be. I even convinced Cowie to have one!
Our Kastoori Bhatura was a wonderfully inflated chipatti that resembled a bready woopy-cushion. Dipped in our array of sauces and spicy condiments, it was fantastic.
Whilst we were pottering around India I kept missing out on having a dosa. They are large, think, rolled up pancakes filled with savoury sauces. The masala dosa at Kastoori was visually arresting, but unfortunately the spiced potato filling and accompanying sambar wasn't quite as exciting.
(Putting a slightly dull filling to one side, it has made me think that a dosa could make a fantastic left field appearance at next year's pancake competition as a follow up to our Crispy Aromatic Pork Belly Pancakes this year.)
The star of the main course was a chilli banana dish that is spiced with red chillies, lubricated with tomatoes and inspired by Africa. It was a one of the most unusual things I've eaten and had us wondering what John Torode and Greg Wallace would have said on Masterchef if you'd served it to them. I can just hear Pudding Face "Tut-tutting" and saying, "No, no. This is all wrong". But it worked. What a dish. It's worth the trip to Tooting alone.
A bean-ball curry and vegetarian curry were both good, but suffered from being in the shadow of the chilli banana...
Desserts are always terrible in Indian restaurants, but we couldn't resist ordering a couple to test the water. Jeffrey Steingarten singles them out as being one of gastronomy's great mysteries - "they have the texture of face cream". And he's not far wrong.
Rice pudding with pistachio was like someone had tipped a can of Ambrosia into the microwave that I could see through the kitchen door and then crumbled some pistachios on top...
And the comically conical mango ice cream was clearly missing from the set of Babestation.
But the desserts were never going to be any good, so let's just have a laugh and reflect on the fact that Kastoori is a brilliant, inexpensive restaurant, that happens to be both Indian and vegetarian. And luckily for us, just down the road. Just don't arrive with a yearning for chicken tikka masala.