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Mango Grove in Columbia

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Mango Grove is back, and you should be there as well.

The Columbia restaurant closed last year when they knocked down its building to build a drive-through Starbucks. They have reopened just off Dobbin Road, and they're back at full strength -- offering both a vegetarian menu and non-veg dishes that they used to serve at Mirchi Wok.

As I have said before, Indian is one of Howard County's deepest cuisines. But Mango Grove offers a unique experience that makes it perfect for people who already love Indian food or who want to give it a try.

In fact, Mango Grove lets you mix and match your table across three different experiences -- meat curries and kababs like other Indian restaurants, a vegetarian menu that runs down the subcontinent into southern specialities like dosas, and an Indo-Chinese selection that shows how Calcutta merged the two cuisines.

The meat dishes hold their own against Mango Grove's top notch neighbors like House of India and Royal Taj. Each kitchen uses different spices mixtures and cuts of meat, but Mango Grove offers standards like tandoori chicken, chicken korma, and even fish curries.

When you want to branch out, work the Indo-Chinese menu. The wok dishes were the focus when Mirchi Wok opened in the old location, but the chicken lollypops, Szechwan chicken, and cauliflower dumplings are now more of a supplement. The Mirchi fried rice is a fun way to see how Chinese cuisine gets translated -- in the same way that Americans inspired General Tso's and Koreans inspired black bean noodles.

Then push into the separate vegetarian menu, the curries and dosas that make Mango Grove a place that we visit as much as we eat out anywhere.

Start with a curry or two -- for example, smokey pureed eggplant in bainghan bharta, rich lentils in dal makhani, or tender potatoes paired with cauliflower, spinach or cubed eggplant. Jazz it up with bread, the plain naan most of the time but a whole wheat roti or a raisin-spiked Kashmiri naan for a break.

Then pick a dosa (or "dosai"). At the open station right at the entrance, chefs create platter-sized rice and lentil pancakes and then roll them around mixtures of potato, onion and vegetables. You break off pieces of crispy pancake and scoop filling as you go. I'd start with a masala dosa with its basic filling, but you can come back for variation like the Mango Grove Special, which was more like shards of crispy batter than the simple dosa pancake.

If you go with a kid who has gotten past chicken nuggets, take them up to watch the dosa being made. That open station is a great place to show off that the south Indian standard is familiar enough to be like a pancake, but different enough to be some new.

The beauty of new vegetarian food is that you can explore without fear of what you're putting in your mouth. At the core, dosas are rice and lentil crisps wrapped about mashed potato. The oothappam are variations that you can top with cheese and all kinds of vegetables. The idli appetizers are mild, steamed rice and lentil cakes that were perfect our family who can't eat spicy food. These are all friendly foods, warm for the winter but light enough to enjoy all year.

If anything, Mango Grove has improved in its warm, earth-toned new space. You get many of the friendly faces who used to work at the old location, but the updated dining room offers an enormous lunch buffet and a back-window view over the development's pond.

The Sun's Richard Gorelick wrote a positive review of Mango Grove, but he chided the staff for not giving him more advice. I empathize. So what's my advice about Mango Grove?

Pick all over the menus. That's plural. Mango Grove reopened with two menus, one vegetarian using Mango Grove's name and one non-veg using the Mirchi Wok name from the sibling restaurant that was next door to the old location. Take four people. Order a bunch of food:

  • Order a dosa. These are the plate-sized crepes filled with spiced mashed potatoes and vegetables. First visit: Order regular masala dosa. Second visit: Order a bit more exotic, the Mango Grove Special Masala Dosa.
  • Build basics. Gorelick is right to applaud the well-tempered curries. These are vegetarian dishes cooked with great skill. First visit: Baighan bartha is mashed eggplant, which I swear is smokier and more flavorful. Second visit: Dal makhani is lentils and beans. Delicious, rich with flavor.
  • Add a meat if that's your thing. First visit: Chicken tikki masala, cooked in the tandoor drill and served with a tomato-based sauce. Next time: Gun-powder roast chicken, our new find with a spicy complex sauce. It's a flavor that I could never re-create.
  • Go unusual. First visit: Nargissi aloo -- potatoes hollowed out and then stuffed back with vegetables and cheese simmered in the makhani sauce. Second visit: Jackfruit curry. This was a special, but it's on the menu now. Immature fruit, cooked down in a curry. It's a hint of sweetness. Sort of a meat texture, but it's a real texture, not fake chicken made form soy.

My suggestions leave out so many other reasons to try Mango Grove -- the samosa chaat appetizers, the oothappam, the Chinese-Indian dishes, the lamb. But you need to start somewhere.

Two practical notes. First, I recommend that you stick to curries and idli if you order takeout. The dosas are crisp and delicious right off the griddle. But they will soften in a takeout container. Second, this is a great place to mix vegetarians and meat-lovers. You each get a whole menu. They actually set up two kitchens -- one vegetarian and one for meat.

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