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Thali-ho! 

Vatica delights with down-home Indian delicacies

I never know who I'm going to run into at Vatica. From our city's leading cheese guru to the guy who cuts my hair, a diverse cross-section of Atlanta's foodies are making the trek to Marietta as word spreads about this unique Indian vegetarian spot in the Terrill Mill Junction shopping center.

ONE FOR ALL: There is no menu at Vatica. For $8.99 at dinner and $6.99 at lunch, the restaurant offers an all-you-can-eat meal on a thali, a round metal tray upon which five or six harmonious dishes are served. This isn't the usual assortment of flabby, overcooked vegetables in creamy curry sauces that you find in many Indian joints. This is home-style cookin' like your mama would have made, had she been from the Gujarat in western India.

MULTI-CULTI: The selection changes every day, based on the culinary whims of Sadhana Vallabh, who owns the restaurant with her husband, Dhirajlal. A typical thali includes a chunky potato dish flavored with cumin or mustard seeds; a pleasingly bitter vegetable stew or spicy curry of eggplant, cauliflower or green beans; a savory puree of dried peas or beans called dal, and a light sweet-and-sour soup known as sambaar. Rice is always served with the meal, as is raita (a tangy yogurt condiment) and hot bread, either pita-like naan or deep-fried poori. There's usually a little nibble of something sweet as well.

SPEAK UP: For some mysterious reason, you have to inquire about chutneys and pickles before someone brings them out from the kitchen. You'll be glad you did. Most of the condiments are homemade, including pesto-like cilantro and smooth, sweet tamarind chutneys, and puckery lemon and crunchy, intense carrot pickles. A dollop on vegetables and rice tease the palate and bring the flavors alive.

BONUS GOODIES: On your way out, stop and gander at the array of traditional Indian snacks displayed in the glass case near the door. They offer little squares of fudgey fenugreek and raisin halva, and oddly shaped sweets made from rice, chickpea and wheat flours. All are made in-house. While we were ogling the selection, one enthusiastic customer offered us a sample of the treats he had just purchased. They looked like Chinese pot stickers, but inside they were filled with sweet, spicy coconut. Also be on the lookout for benda cookies, little confections made with flour and sweetened condensed milk, and flavored with cardamom and almond. They melt seductively in your mouth.

SERVICE: Mr. Vallabh cheerfully makes the rounds filling empty trays with more delicious dishes. He chatters relentlessly, for better or worse, but have patience. You won't find fresh, authentic Indian fare quite like this anywhere else in Atlanta.

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