Madras Cafe at Briarcliff and Clairmont in north DeKalb is a stalwart standby in this landscape, and after last year's menu revamp and remodeling, it has become even better than the reliable puri purveyor it has long been.
For years, Madras had the charm, style and ambiance of a bus station, and thankfully, that has changed. Seeger's it ain't, but it's a big improvement. Owner Narendra Patel's simple but effective renovation makes for a much cozier, user-friendly space. Gone are the molded-plastic fast-food booths, harsh lighting and ugly walls. Instead you'll find welcoming tables and wooden chairs, large windows and a relaxing, natural-toned color palette on the walls. Rather than dashing in for a takeout order and running back out, you won't mind hanging around here.
Patel's addition of Northern Indian curries and combinations to his menu is another welcome change. Long-time Madras fans might worry that expanding the menu could dilute its quality; instead, it has enhanced it. Standbys like dosais -- huge crepes made from chickpea flour and given a variety of treatments and stuffings -- are top-notch here. Served with sambar, a spicy lentil-vegetable soup, and coconut chutney (a nifty condiment of ground coconut, cilantro and zingy spices), any dosai on the Madras menu makes for a filling and inexpensive meal.
Most dosais are stuffed with spicy onions, potatoes, carrots and peas, and you can order plain ones as well. The Masala Dosai, at $4.50, is a good way to try this kind of Indian food if you haven't already. The Madras staff will obligingly lower the spiciness upon request.
Those with more heatproof palates will want to try the Mysore Masala Dosai, again stuffed with the potato mixture, but also spread with hot chutney before being rolled up. On the side, an absolute must here is the raita, a standard Indian condiment and palate-cooler of yogurt with chopped cucumber, red onion, tomatoes and carrots. Madras' raita has the proper crunchy texture to go with the creaminess and makes for a much-needed respite when eating seriously hot food like this.
If you're more ambitious, try an appetizer. Samosas -- fried pastries stuffed with spicy potatoes and onions (sense a theme here? Remember, this is vegetarian fare) are a good bet, and even better is the Chatt Samosa. Think of an Indian version of nachos, and you've got the right idea. Two samosas hot out of the fryer are flattened on a plate and then topped with every kind of condiment the cook has around. Madras really has this one right, pouring on sweet and hot chutneys, yogurt, fried crunchy bits of "noodle," made from the aforementioned chickpea dough, then sprinkled with diced red onion. With food like this, you can see why it's no problem for millions of people to be happily vegetarian.
The new menu additions include northern-Indian-style curries. Under the "House Specialties" listing, try the Peshwari Chole Puri, chickpeas in a tomato-based sauce redolent of cumin and served with puri, deep-fried bread. You'll have a decent amount for two at only $5. Or you could make your meal go farther with Baigan Bharta, a roasted eggplant curry, which honors the vegetable and is delectably filling.
For contrast, investigate the southern Indian side of the menu and spring for some Vegetable Korma -- most often green beans, peas and carrots -- in a green, coconut-based sauce. Madras' paneer (a type of cheese usually cooked and served with a vegetable) dishes don't impress, unfortunately. The Palak Paneer (spinach) can be oily and flavorless, though the Paneer Tikka Masala, a treatment involving peppers and onions, is a bit better, with more texture and spice.
To end a meal at Madras, consider a Mango Lassi -- a yogurt shake with mango pulp that offers just the right note of sweet/tart coolness. Resolve to come back and bring your friends who like good, inexpensive food that they probably couldn't make at home. Who knows, you might just get to be a regular here for Sunday football, Samosa Chatt and your own table by the window.
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