The weekends were the time to find yourself at Woodlands. Veg-heads, Hindus, College Park students and lovers of South Indian cooking would all gather at the restaurant, perhaps after temple or as part of larger day trips to eat, pray, love and shop (though probably not in that order). They all arrived for the same thing: owner Anand Poojary’s buffet, a sumptuous spread of more than 25 dishes, each one a rebuke to the notion that meat is somehow mandatory for any cuisine of great depth and diversity.
At $14.95 a pop — a price that wouldn’t even cover your foie gras parfait on Le Diplomate’s brunch menu — you had access to one table after another of chaats, biryanis, South Indian breakfast staples, flatbreads, curries, Indo-Chinese dishes, desserts and dosas so large they looked like the kitchen had rolled thin sheets shaved from the trunk of a California redwood. The first time you experience the buffet, you swear you’ll become a regular. Then time passes like a bullet train until one day you wake up and realize that Woodlands has closed, and you kick yourself for all those weekends you skipped it for seemingly shinier objects.
On Jan. 1, Poojary closed his restaurant, the one he opened 23 years ago with the help of a kindly landlord who took a chance on two neophytes with absolutely no experience running a business. Poojary and his business partner eventually went their separate ways, and he alone was responsible for the rise and fall of the restaurant whose official name told you everything about its mission: Woodlands Pure Vegetarian Indian Cuisine.
Poojary might have celebrated his 25th anniversary in the same strip center if the kindly landlord still managed the space. But those days are gone, and Poojary couldn’t negotiate terms that he liked with his new landlord, so he let his lease lapse on Dec. 31. He had hoped to find another location. But it’s a scary time to be operating a restaurant, let alone trying to reopen one amid so much uncertainty.
That’s when “this thing just clicked in my mind,” said Poojary, who grew up on a farm in the Udupi district of southwestern India. He decided to operate Woodlands out of his sister establishment in Silver Spring, Jewel of India, named for the gold-accented, white-tablecloth restaurant in Manhattan where Poojary got his start in the American hospitality industry in the mid-1990s. With that decision, Woodlands would became a peculiar creature of the pandemic: the accidental ghost kitchen, based on a business with more than 20 years of memories already in the bank.
Such a dual operation is not as easy, relatively speaking, as opening a takeout fried-chicken concept inside a barbecue joint where the owner might have a spare deep fryer to handle the extra business. You basically need two separate kitchens to operate a predominantly North Indian restaurant (Jewel of India) and a predominantly South Indian restaurant (Woodlands) in the same space. More orthodox vegetarians will insist that no animal product, not even eggs, share the same prep area as their daily bread, and Jains, whose spiritual doctrine of nonviolence extends to the destruction of entire plants, do not wish root vegetables to contaminate their kitchens.
Call it karma if you’d like, but Poojary had already shut down his catering operation at Jewel of India and returned the adjacent banquet room to his landlord, leaving him with a secondary kitchen suitable for the ghostly incarnation of Woodlands. Two cooks from the Langley Park location, Biju Poouathumkundli and Sanjaya Maharajan, made the move to Silver Spring and now serve as the sturdy backbone of this takeout operation.
I officially reestablished my connection to Woodlands in late December, ignorant to the fact that Poojary was just days away from closing the bricks-and-mortar location. I ordered a masala dosa, among other things, curious to see how the crepe would fare after a short run from restaurant to doorstep. When released from its tin-foil cocoon, the dosa was as compromised as you’d expect, its crispy edges so softened that the line between pancake and potato-onion-cashew filling started to disappear.
As much as I missed the presentation, and the crackle, of my dosa, I reveled in its accompanying sambar stew and the crepe’s potato mash speckled with mustard seeds, curry leaves, fried cashews and more, their combined impact as undeniable as the South Indian sun. I had a similar experience with the chana bhatura, a northern Punjabi dish often found on South Indian menus: Its blimp of fried bread had deflated, which detracted from its visual appeal, but it remained warm and chewy, the perfect scoop for the fragrant chickpea curry.
If the offerings on the dosa menu are unavoidably diminished in transit, countless other dishes don’t suffer any ill effects from hitching a ride to your house. The kitchen excels at rice, erecting complex, fully realized entrees out of an ingredient that many consider little more than a courier for other, presumably loftier, dishes. The lemon rice is a genuine star, its turmeric-tinted grains augmented with curry leaves, chiles, mustard seeds and tempered split lentils, which provide a deeply satisfying crunch. The bagala bath is an A-lister, too, its rice suspended in a house-made yogurt, at once tart and creamy and savory.
To be honest, I’ve become something of a stalker since reestablishing my relationship with Woodlands. At least once a week, I’ll pick up my phone and review its menu, placing orders with a recklessness that borders on obsession. Pani puri, butter masala dosa, palak paneer, tandoori-charred vegetables (and fruits!), dal makhani, malai kofta, rasmalai and more have appeared on my doorstep, their first stop on the way to my eager stomach. I tell myself that it’s for the job, but I know the truth: I just love Woodlands and can’t wait for its return to a strip center (or wherever) near me. Poojary wants that to happen almost as badly as I do.
Woodlands Pure Vegetarian Indian Cuisine
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 to 9 p.m. daily, for pickup and delivery only.
Prices: $3 to $16 for all dishes, including breads, appetizers, curries, house specialties and desserts.