Success begets success.
Well-managed, more appealing ethnic restaurants prosper not only because the number of potential customers increases yearly. In busy Atlanta, thoughtfully prepared, authentic cuisines essentially sell themselves. We are increasingly a city of immigrants -- whether from Macon, Forest Hills or Bangalore. Riding the edge, we seek not just new and varied experience but improved versions of the new. That's what draws a flush, discerning crowd.
Madras Saravana Bhavan, a South Indian vegetarian restaurant near North DeKalb Mall and Emory University, is the next case up. Opening in a part of town already notable for the best in Indian vegetarian fare -- Woodland and Udipi Cafe are nearby -- the Madras Cafe spin-off ups the ante in service, ambience and, with exceptions, sophisticated cookery.
Situated in a former PoFolks outlet near a defunct Cub Foods, Madras Saravana Bhavan (MSB for short) has yet to be discovered by the vegetarians and take-home commuters who treat the faded Indian Delights as their Boston Market. At MSB, clipped accents and saris greatly outnumber Dockers and drawls. During dinner one weeknight, the curmudgeonly banker and I made up two-thirds of the Caucasian guests among a crowd of perhaps 50. Lunch, salted with medics from DeKalb Med Center, is somewhat more mixed.
The space itself -- row after row of booths, flanked by a few tables -- has been deftly reinterpreted using bamboo awnings, baskets, dark wood window frames and folk art. Percussive chanting and Indian rock-rap alternate on the sound system, reminding anyone with ears that he's not in Kansas.
Table service, wine and beer are featured. Most items are served on banana leaves set out on bright metal trays. The extensive menu lists dozens of dishes not commonly encountered. Ordering a thali -- a tray meal comprising a dozen or so items -- is perhaps the easiest way to dive in and experience what Madras Saravana Bhavan has to offer.
My lunch combination included one very hot and one mild vegetable-lentil soup, a steamed rice-and-lentil cake resembling spoonbread, a fried lentil-pepper "donut" (medhu vadai), lentil stew, vegetable curry, steamed rice, coconut rice, pickles, chutneys, cooling yogurt-based raita, a papadum cracker, one very tender poori (fried, puffed bread) and an unusual and delicious dessert, payasam. The latter, an angel hair variation on rice pudding, is flavored with nuts, raisins and cardamom. Everything hot tasted freshly prepared, not held. The medhu vadai, lentil stew, coconut rice and payasam were particularly satisfying. At $6.50, this is a bargain worth a long drive. At night, the price almost doubles, to $12, albeit for a larger spread.
Dosai -- crisp rice and lentil-flour crepes -- may be the lightest, tastiest and most delicate in town. Versions include thin, paper thin, individual and family size (the latter 6 feet across). Stuffings and flavorings range from the regular and prosaic -- though delicious -- masala dosai filled with spiced potatoes, onions, peas and carrots, to dosai layered with hot green chilies and onion. Aside from the $16 family model, dosai start at $4.50 and run all the way up to $7. They are served with sambar -- a combination soup and dipping sauce -- and coconut chutney, also for dipping.
Baigan bhartha (spiced eggplant with peas and cilantro), makes an excellent, shareable centerpiece for a vegetarian meal. My order was almost as delectable as the leading version, served at Udipi Cafe. Gobi Manchourian, marinated cauliflower that's breaded, deep-fried and tossed in a tomato, soy and chili sauce, is crisp and delectable. Though the entree's blood red "Manchurian" hue may well be derived from bottled food coloring, the crisp, gingery flavor is as unique as the appearance. Vegetable curries cost $7.50. Next time I want to try avial -- mixed vegetables in yogurt gravy, South Indian style.
We started dinner with a plate of pakoda, chickpea-flour fritters studded with onion and anise-flavored fennel seeds. The fritters arrived sizzling hot, crisp and dry ($3.50). Not so an order of poorly puffed poori. Unlike the feather-light wisps offered at lunch, these were leathery, limp and lukewarm ($2.50 for two).
Alliteration is unnecessary for a fine meal at Madras Saravana Bhavan, of course. Just open the menu, close your eyes and point.
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