My first and only foray until now to Woodlands was for a chowlunch two years ago. It had just changed hands. We had a wonderful time chatting with the new owners and were very impressed with the food. I'd often wondered if the quality had held up. Recently I've been back a few times for lunch and am pleased to confirm that Woodlands is still a special refuge.
In marked contrast to the brisk, fast food or buffet lunch ambience at the other South Indian spots nearby, Woodlands is a sea of serenity. Decorated in soothing neutral earth tones, the melodious chants and incense that swirl in the air make Woodlands feel more like a place of worship than a restaurant. The near silent servers with their low voices and soundless steps are as unobtrusive as can be. Sparsely occupied at lunch time, this dining temple's quiet is periodically interrupted by the mechanical whir of a blender or the sound of chopping coming as each order arrived in the kitchen.
The downside of this tranquil environment and made-to-order cooking is the languorous pacing at lunch time. A note on the dinner menu warns that some dishes may require more than 30 minutes to prepare. Even choosing from the selection of week day "express lunch" combinations for $6.95, my first lunch here was nearly an hour and half and the next two visits required more than an hour. Yet, if you have the time, the cooking is well worth the wait and it's a big step up in quality from Udupi Palace which is just down the street or Spice Hut in the same shopping center. The lunch specials are generously portioned and include chai or majjiga for a beverage, making it possible to have a delicious and relaxing lunch for about $9 including tax and service.
The waiting is made more bearable by the complimentary rasam that is served as soon as you order. With its fresh tomato-y highlights, intricately subtle spicing, and secret ingredient of sarsaparilla, Woodlands rasam is the best of the many I've sampled in recent months. Nearly transparent, thin, and brothy, I like to sip it straight from the serving cup. The dazzlingly clean, fresh flavors and perfect pitch of the sweet, spicy, sour, and salty elements of this soup exemplify Woodland's polished and seamless cooking style. Tempered by Ayurvedic principles, the Mysore cuisine served here has plenty of capsicum heat, as evidenced by the continuous refills of ice water and the customers who request some ghee to tone down the spicing. But it's less aggressive some how, providing a back beat instead of the lead. In contrast to the exciting and bold flavors of Tirupathi Bhimas that knock your socks off, for example, the harmony of Woodlands food has a restorative effect that both calms and invigorates simultaneously. Perhaps it's the interplay of the incense and the prayers caressing my spirit, a lunch at Woodlands rewards me with the same soul-satisfaction as a Chinese Buddhist temple meal with the added bonus of a hot and spicy tingle from top to bottom.
The Mysore rava dosa is one of my favorite things here, accompanied with coconut chutney and sambhar. Made with semolina, it's crackly and lacy, filled with zingy Mysore spice powders. On the combination lunch, I had my choice of rices to go with it and picked ven pongal. Soft and creamy rice cooked down with yellow lentils and golden spices to a comfort food texture, the ven pongal was punctuated with fresh curry leaves and cilantro.
The mango lassi was rather light on mango and not worth the surcharge. Note that the rose lassi that I'd liked so much before is no longer available.