Change happens—in the restaurant world, it happens often. Beautifully unique restaurants fail where more quotidian eateries seem to thrive. But in the case of Taj's closure and Woodland's opening in the same location, change is a very good thing.
Like some other now-closed efforts at Indian cuisine, Woodlands' menu covers geographical areas whose culinary heritage has been seriously underrepresented in Knoxville. And they do it in style with some thrilling Indo-Chinese offerings and a selection of Mumbai chaat, aka Bombay street food. What's more, Woodlands presents a whole slate of options, including many vegan items, that are brand new to the area.
But what really makes Woodlands a destination is that everything is fresh and popping with flavor. Over the course of three visits, nothing here seemed dull, stale, left over, or remotely boring. Even if you're not a fire-eater, it's worth trying some of the warmer offerings; heat is handled so adroitly that your endorphins will be firing all your neural cylinders and producing hearty laughter and wide, satisfied smiles before you're even aware that your head is sweating.
For lunch, surrender any fears and join the buffet line. An ever-shifting snapshot of the menu, it's rarely the same twice and always offers a happy mix of both familiar and new dishes. A dark and rich goat curry, cooked on the bone, is often available alongside a picture-perfect execution of Chicken tikka masala, and you may find papdi chat, a simple but delicious panzanella-like mix of chickpeas, potatoes, onion served with crispy bits of dough wafers and crispy noodles.
Periodically, a server strolls the dining room with freshly made mini-dosas. If you still haven't had the dosa—an Indian rice- and lentil-flour crepe that's rolled and filled with tasty stuff—then drop what you're doing and go eat one now.
Still, make sure you return for dinner. The menu is a wonderland of good things. You'll find uthappa, an Indian pancake that's fun to eat, especially with a smoky and intense side of spicy tomato and onion chutney. And don't miss trying the lemon pickle—it's a condiment that's tempting to eat like a side dish.
South Indian Thali: Thali means "platters" and they make good options if you'd like a survey of the menu. At Woodlands most of the thali come with choices—particularly the vegan and non-vegan Northern Indian thali. They're really just beautiful mini-feasts of assorted curries, soups, and bread. There are too many highlights to mention here, but look forward to a rasam, a deeply flavored tomato soup that coats the mouth with intense flavor and a pleasant bite of spice; and aloo with beans, a gently spiced and fortifying mix of fluffy potato and nearly melting green beans that may be surprisingly familiar.
Schezwan Dosa: This exotic dosa is a blend of potato and vegetables that are stir fried with Szechuan sauce. Unlike the traditional rolled dosa, this beauty is served in slices that are satisfying just to pick up and dip into the accompanying sauces. It's a feast of texture, flavor, and subtle warmth. The dish remains solidly Indian especially with the bowls of rich, earthy lentil-based sambar and creamy coconut chutney for dipping; the Chinese twist is subtle, so you won't feel the need to ask for chopsticks, just seconds.
Falooda Ice Cream: If you're an eat-dessert-first person, rejoice. There's a strong argument for ordering this Indian shake with your meal: it's cold and rich and a veritable balm to the warmer dishes on the menu. A fascinating blend of rose milk, ice cream, and soft noodles, it's a cheery way to finish a meal or start it. If you haven't tried Indian dessert before now, just do it. Gulab jamun, rice kheer, and whatever ice cream is on offer (hope for mango) are all mighty tasty.