Empire Plate Building at Mayuri

About halfway through dinner at Mayuri, I had to step away. I had to get up from the table, wind my way across the tight, cramped floor—dodging servers and managers and bussers and tangled knots of partiers standing in the narrow channels between booths and tables—and make for the door. I was overwhelmed, lost and swimming in a haze of tandoor smoke, sweet incense, a hundred flavors, a thousand colors and the heat of closely-packed bodies. I could feel sweat on my forehead and the sides of my neck, a buzzing in my head like a TV tuned to a dead channel—static running up into the high spectrum and fizzing like a skull full of club soda. At the door, bodies were packed in like the front row at a rock show, tight and unmoving, locked in and looking out across the floor with the thousand-yard stares of acid casualties or the fanatically obsessed. They watched the trays and the servers moving around the floor, focused like pachinko players and tracking the impossible-to-predict jinks and bounces; waiting for food to be delivered, for tables to be cleared, for the next few seats to open up. I saw the Butthole Surfers play an outdoor show at a small amphitheatre once that evolved into a small riot when the mosh pit spilled into a poorly-placed seating area separated only by a low post fence. I was in the pit, lost my watch, had a nose ring torn out, and clobbered someone with a clod of dirt when the crowd surged and the kicking started. I also once attended a Ministry show where the cheap seats and the good ones were kept apart only by a four-foot drop over a retaining wall. In both cases, there was a moment—never considered, never conscious—where the entire crowd went over the edge from relative restraint into complete anarchy. It was an all-or-nothing thing. One second, a small fence, a short wall, was enough to contain them. Next, there was nothing short of barbed wire, riot cops and moats full of flaming badgers that could've stopped them. The moment comes and goes in an instant, like a switch flipping. All sense of politeness and decorum goes right out the window. At Mayuri, all that stood between the fully-committed floor and the crowd jamming the tiny waiting area was one small woman working two registers and a telephone at the same time. When she looked over the room, she did it with a field commander's eyes: merciless and calculating. And while no one (yet) looked willing to charge the floor, start grabbing idli rice cakes, utappam and rava dosa out of people's hands, and shoving them into their own starving mouths, the looks on some of the faces were not dissimilar from the ones I saw right before the fence came down, right before the mob of destitute punks poured over the wall like a wave. I pushed my way back through the knots of people, turning my shoulders into narrow gaps, and twisted out the door into the cold and dark of the night. The sudden quiet and the chill in the air was sudden, like a slap. I walked into the parking lot, lit a cigarette, and leaned against my car—marveling at the distance a few steps can take you, the difference between there and here. In New York, there are pocket neighborhoods you can slip into and be 5,000 miles away in a matter of a few paces. You can live there for years and never know about them, never stumble into them. Albuquerque has strip malls where no English is ever spoken. In Denver, there are corners you can turn where, in the space of a single step, even the air is different—where it can go from winter to summer, from Colorado to Saigon or Addis Ababa or Moscow, and the smells of foreign spices can change the way you think about distance forever. Mayuri is like that: a tesseract door, a swirl of color and spice, the smell of strange latitudes. And suddenly, you're gone. In the parking lot, fathers in Sikh turbans and mothers in saris the color of Caribbean oceans stood patiently waiting, letting their kids run the crazy out of them before dinner. More men clustered in a corner, waiting with their hands in their pockets. Families walked up and down the cement course in front of the restaurant, glancing in through the windows to weigh the mass of customers waiting—the division between this world and that no thicker than a pane of glass or the width of a door. Outside, it was Bellevue at night. Inside, it was Southern India, Northern India, or some kind of strange mash-up of the two, where the Southern idli and rice-flour crepes and tin cups of sambar collide with tandoori meats from Punjab and Bengali seafood, coconut milk from Kerala and imperial Mughal spices, kormas and biryanis. An impossible place, as invented as anything, but made real on Mayuri's menu and floor. I'd already eaten paneer pakora—thin slabs of house-made cheese jacketed in a too-thick chickpea batter, spiced with fennel seed, until each piece was like a pillow for a mouse, swollen and soft—and red-orange sambar thick with more lentils and vegetables and spice. The lollipop chicken (drumettes, marinated in spices, deep-fried and meant to be eaten with the fingers) were what I imagined lucky Indian children eating when their parents dragged them along to some fake American restaurant in Mumbai or Jaipur—the regional equivalent of the chicken finger. The kabuli naan was a meal in itself—warm bread, stuffed with sweet raisins and ground, dried fruit. The pooris and potato curry were like street food reimagined for the table, offering big rounds of greasy bread, fried in oil almost like roti—but thicker, more weighty, and served with a mound of chunky curried mashed potatoes studded with cardamom seeds, peas and carrots. Fresh out of the kitchen, they tasted like eating the jumbled leftovers of a meal already finished before this new one had even begun. I took a breath of cold, clear air, then another. The place—with its bronze statuary and paintings, framed fans of peacock tailfeathers (Mayuri means "peacock," apt for this wild muddle of competing flavors, smells, colors and traditions) and staff all slogging the floor like fighting their way through a siege without any hope of relief—was exhausting, overwhelming, lovely and alive. Mayuri is a growing concern. It has many heads. There is another restaurant in Bothell, a catering operation, and a mall-style fast-food set-up inside the Microsoft Commons in Redmond. There are grocery stores and video stores and bakeries and chaat shops and a travel service, sometimes all occupying the same locations and scattered all over the Eastside. But this Mayuri—stranded between Bellevue and Redmond the way the menu straddles the North/South Indian culinary divide—is the hot, bright center of empire. Two-a-day service, seven days a week. A menu that reads like a novella, with more individual items than can be sampled in 20 visits. Microsoft employees jamming the restaurant up during lunch, crowding the ever-changing buffet, and filling tables with a la carte orders. And finally, families, multiple parties, singles and those waiting for massive to-go orders choking the doorway and littering the sidewalk for dinner and on into the night. I plunge back into the fray, and the shock is no dimmer the second time around. Eight-thirty at night and the place is still packed to the rafters. The woman running the front tells someone that it is a 30-minute wait for a table—60 if the party is large. I push past and loop around back to my table, where more courses have arrived: lamb samosa and a Goan chicken vindaloo. I still have some ragged ends of poori left and dip them into the vindaloo sauce, which is extraordinary—red like brick dust and hot as hell, full of big pieces of chicken thigh and cubes of potato soaking in a tomato-and-chile broth with turmeric and cumin, coriander, vinegar for bite. The lamb in the samosa has been ground until it is one crank removed from a pâté. It seems to melt on my tongue, leaving only the flavor of lamb, the crunch of the samosa skin, and the texture of peas and onions sautéed in butter until they are sweet as candy. There's more. The malai kofta tastes almost Middle Eastern, save the paneer and the cream sauce rich with butter and milk. I don't love the saag paneer. The cheese is excellent—fresh, soft and almost-but-not-quite melted by the heat of the creamed spinach—but the saag is too rough and oniony for my tastes. Mayuri offers eight kinds of lamb, not counting the samosa, the seekh kabob or the lamb biryani, which is only one of five varieties. There are more than 30 vegetarian dishes, a dozen kinds of dosa, navratan korma with paneer and nuts and fresh vegetables simmering in a cream sauce with only a whisper of spice and sweetness, and channa masala (herbed chickpeas) that I could eat all day, scooping them up with torn squares of naan or aloo paratha, dipping same in the little tin cups of tamarind chutney, mint chutney, tomato curry and parsley sauce and raita, getting cleared or replenished with no rhyme or reason by a staff that sometimes moves too slow and sometimes too fast to see. At 9 p.m., the floor is still crowded. By 9:30, there's maybe some light at the end of the tunnel. The staff is dragging now. The manager carries takeout bags in both hands and waddles toward the front, shouting out dishes in the hopes that someone will recognize their dinner in the scrum. It's closing time, but the phone is still ringing and there are still tables on the floor when I push back from mine. I waddle, too, when I head for the front, stopping briefly at the counter where the hostess has somehow stemmed the tide and maintained order. I wait until she looks my way and ask if it's always this busy. "No," she says. "This is only a Sunday." jsheehan@seattleweekly.com  PRICE GUIDE Paneer pakora  $6.99Lamb samosa  $3.59 Pooris and potato curry  $5.99 Kabuli naan  $2.99 Saag paneer  $9.99 Chicken vindaloo  $10.99 Vada sambar  $3.79

 
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