Flanked by a row of ethnic restaurants in a Morrisville strip mall, it might be easy to dismiss Tower Indian restaurant as a place reserved for vegetarians. But don’t, because once you enter, the bold flavors of its South Indian cuisine will grip you, take you hostage and you’ll forget temporarily that meat even exists. The dining room is spare, but it’s no matter. Soon enough, you’ll be occupied by Tower’s massive menu anyway, poring through choices between the Cheesecake Factory-like menu worth of dosai, curries, tiffins, paneer and basmati specials. In fact, the wealth of choices at Tower might be its only pitfall, for choosing between them all is the toughest part of the dining experience.
As my dining partner and I finally decide on an order of spinach and onion fritters to ease us into the meal, I scan the dining room and am silently reassured by the tables of Indian families and hungry graduate students that surround us. Forgive me for being presumptuous, but the makeup of the patrons can be a good sign that Tower serves authentic Indian fare.
Delicately fried, golden masses of spinach and onion soon arrive on a metal platter, with its batter barely clutching to its outer crevice. I dangle the tentacle of the hot fritter gingerly with the tips of my fingers, lowering it slowly as I dunk it into a ramekin of the accompanying sauce, cooling its temperature in a curried bath. The anxious anticipation of an order of baingan bartha and the South Indian Thali, only available on weekends, is interrupted by a dosai as it arrives sheepishly to the table. The lightly sweet, crisp crepe lays coiled on the plate, softly cocooning a curried potato filling that seconds later is severed by the sides of our forks, savagely consumed as evidence of its goodness.
Minutes later, a waiter balancing two large metal trays comes to make a delivery and we lay claim to a miniature cauldron of baingan bartha, a hearty, crimson ephemeral blend of cilantro, mustard seeds, tomato, garlic, spices and smoked eggplant. It’s like an Indian version of gumbo—minus the seafood—and the flavors are pungent and robust, though the smokiness of the eggplant gets muddled by the aromatic spices. Tower’s baingan bartha comes with a heaping portion of basmati rice and the pairing can easily feed two.
And then there is the Thali “South Indian Wheel of Fortune” as I nickname it. For $14.95, it’s a barrage of food and a barrage in a good way. For the price, you’re paying for an explosive symphony of flavors, complete with staccato-like notes of vegetable curries, sambar, biryani, and yogurt. You’ll find yourself dizzy from the whirlwind of aromatics including bold flavors full of turmeric, garam masala, chilli peppers, saffron, mustard seeds, and tamarind juices. As you circle along the vibrant hues of the thali wheel, you’ll climb seismically, ascending and descending, sometimes taking a reprieve from the robust flavors in a placating metal round of creamy yogurt or in the tepid crunch of sliced apples. I find myself alternating my fork, dipping it into one of the fragrant curries and then sinking my spoon into the well of hot rasam, eager to coat my throat with its spicy juices, all while clutching the crunchy, salty disc of papadum. I occasionally scoop a few spoons of basmati rice, eagerly helping my dining partner take the thali down in one sitting. Though occasionally spicy, none of the thali contents are mouth-numbingly so, and none have me frantically rushing towards my glass of water. The thali highlight, besides the vegetable biryani that has me craving an entire tub of its contents, is the galub jamun, a singular soft fried nugget of dough, peacefully floating in a clear, syrup, aromatic rosewater-like liquid like a lotus flower. Plucking it from the round ramekin and biting into it is a rewarding experience, a feathery descent into the diminuendo portion of the meal.
The thali meal finishes with a metal cup of coffee that comes included with the entree, served almost to a scathing temperature and it nearly burns the tongue at first sip. It’s probably best to sip slowly to have time to savor the flavors. It works for me anyway, as I’m already thinking about what I’m going to order upon my next visit.