In a country with something like 21 official languages and 1,600 dialects, it's no wonder regional differences are rich and many in India. This doesn't always seem the case with Indian restaurants in this country. More often than not, menus run to fiery lamb vindaloos and chicken tikka. Less well known are the dishes of southern India. Simpler, with fewer foreign influences, southern Indian cuisine is vegetable-heavy, relying largely on rice and pulses (peas, beans, lentils) along with lots of highly seasoned veggies.
5th Element, a 6-month-old newcomer in Oldsmar, specializes in these dishes. The restaurant caters to the tastes of employees at nearby Nielsen Media, Lockheed Martin, United Healthcare and area hospital workers, says owner Subash Vajja. Vajja's friends in Jacksonville have a restaurant there of the same name, a reference to India's ancient system of traditional medicine called Ayurveda, centered around the five elements of earth, water, fire, air, and sky or ether.
It gets more complicated, with each person having a dominant energy that is controlled by these elements. In Ayurvedic practice, six rasas, or flavors, should guide the preparation of every meal. Sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter and astringent: Each restores mind and body when correctly proportioned to one another.
Take a gander down the buffet line (22 or 23 items during the week, 28 on the weekend) and you'll see dishes that are a rasa romp: A condiment bar contains tart-hot lemon pickle, sweet tamarind sauce, neon green mint sauce, a lush coconut chutney (made of chopped fresh coconut, yogurt, black mustard seed and some kind of sneaky chilies) and others. Then a long row of steam trays cradle wholesome veggie dishes (yellow dal, chickpea channa masala, a potato-eggplant curry and more) alongside familiar chicken tikka masala and naan shiny with butter.
It's one of the area's more varied and generous Indian buffets, with a separate section for salads and desserts (a lovely kheer rice pudding dotted with sultanas and sliced almonds, best paired with a bit of piping-hot self-serve chai from a big Thermos). But if you only come for lunch, you'll miss some of the most interesting options at this modest strip-mall venture.
There are the dramatic and oversized dosa crepes filled with veggies as well as the gently seasoned gummy rice cakes called idlis ($5.99; these seem best as a medium for sambar, a soothing vegetarian soup/sauce lent zest with tamarind pulp and fenugreek seed).
Go for the Mysore masala dosa ($6.99), a huge, thin, rice-and-lentil pancake rolled into tube and enfolding mellow potato-onion curry, served with ramekins of coconut chutney and sambar. Or head for one of the uttappam ($6.99), a soft white pancake in which things like green onion and hot chilies are embedded. Easiest eaten in triangular wedges dotted with sauce, it's like an Indian spin on pizza.
Those watching carbs need to know that much of the cuisine consists of different breads, crepes and other starchy things, each served with a tingly, alluring dipping sauces. There are delicately flavored vadai (fried lentil doughnuts; $5.99) served with sambar, or batiura bread (more commonly spelled "bhatura"; $7.99), large, deep-fried balloons of wheat flour and yogurt, served with a hearty chickpea curry. This isn't health food, but 5th Element's southern Indian dishes are proof positive that vegetarian dishes can be indulgent, juxtaposing flavors and textures in a satisfying way.
Laura Reiley can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2293. She dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses. Advertising has nothing to do with selection for review or the assessment.