I feel I should first explain that I gave up on India after I spent a few weeks in Turkey. Make sense? After two weeks in Geneva and Rome a couple of years ago, Wayne and I flew to Istanbul for what turned out to be for me your basic Apocalypse Now-style journey into the heart of darkness.
The particular heart of darkness was my extreme impatience. People in the Third World just don't seem to appreciate my need for immediate gratification. Time seems to function differently there -- shall we say nonexistently? -- and complaints are handled in a style that would cause the customer service folks at Sprint to turn green with envy.
We, for example, booked into air-conditioned first-class hotels in Turkey's interior. But every hotel we checked into turned out not to be air-conditioned, or very poorly. I would complain. Smiling concerned clerks would tell me that the AC would be turned on right away, sir. An hour later, of course, it wouldn't be on. This went on for hours, until I went into the lobby to pitch a scene worthy of a menopausal woman trapped in a sauna during a hot flash. The Turks, having tried to placate me with smiles and lies, then resorted to their ultimate weapon: They burst into tears.
This experience caused me to abandon a longtime wish to go to India, which is famous for being even more exhausting to the impatient. In fact, Wayne, who became more enraged than I've ever seen him after 10 hours on a bus in Turkey, told me that he would still like to go to India but he would burn himself alive before going with me.
Fine. I'll content myself with the many Indian restaurants right here in Atlanta. This whole issue of the East and West colliding came into radical focus last week when we visited the new Delhi Darbar (1849 Lawrenceville Highway, 404-297-9613) in Decatur, across the street from the excellent Udipi. A touch of weirdness confronts you as soon as you drive up. Delhi is located in a former Shoney's. Isn't this a grand statement about the de-WASPing of America? Where once kiwis and unripe tomatoes spread themselves out on a carpet of kale, now there are lunch and dinnertime buffets of Indian specialties.
Actually the buffet was not set to begin until this week and part of our experience was definitely the result of the restaurant's newness. The food was delicious -- exceptionally so -- but the service was so taxing to the patience, finally causing me to erupt, that I felt like I was back in Konya listening to Wayne tell me he'd never set foot in India with me. We stood fully 20 minutes at the counter trying to order. We'd order, the clerk would record everything on the electronic cash register and then, moments later, inform us that some of the dishes we'd ordered weren't available. This process, witnessed by beatifically smiling and idle restaurant employees, repeated itself so many times, with few variations, that I finally blurted: "For God's sake, we're just trying to order some food here. Can we get on with this, puh-leeze!"
The young man helping the girl at the counter gave me a look I won't soon forget, not because it was angry, but bestowed such patience and amusement on me that I burst out laughing. This did utterly nothing to get our order completed efficiently or correctly, but it kept me from storming out. The cuisine here is Indian and Pakistani. Of course, when I asked to know which dishes were which, I was dismissed with the statement, "It is all the same." Whatever.
"I have a feeling it's going to be a long wait for the food," Wayne said, thumbing through The New Yorker when we finally sat down. In fact, the food arrived more quickly than it took to order, but fitfully. Dishes are small, similar to those served at nearby Zyka and inexpensive. Samosas (99 cents) are pulled fresh from the fryer. We liked the beef, a really deliciously seasoned concoction, better than the vegetable filling.
Entrees are divided into grilled items and "specialties" which typically feature sauces. Chicken boti ($4.99) was chunks of grilled chicken, marinated and served over a plate of simple grilled onions. Nihari beef, which I happen to know is popular in Pakistan, is absolutely luscious -- slow-cooked beef, almost like pot roast, served in a spicy gravy with a strong echo of ginger.
Nan, the chewy bread, is seasoned with onions or garlic here ($1.59) and is good dipped in anything on the table. The only vegetable available was fried dal ($3.99), which turned out to be a saffron-yellow dish of lentils cooked until they formed a thick sauce, good over rice. By the way, we failed to order rice at the outset of the meal and then had a predictably miserable time getting some to the table. At first, we were given a glass of ice -- hey, it rhymes with rice -- and, when we got clear with the servers, the dish didn't arrive until we were nearly done.
The chaos did have one favorable result. We received a dish we did not order. I'd love to tell you what it was, but when I asked the server, she said, "I don't know." It was some variety of kofta -- minced meat with spices, cooked over the grill.
On your way out the door, stop at the bar where a man prepares those little Indian snacks for freshening the breath. He sits before a mind-boggling array of colorful seeds and herbs. We were totally intimidated and stood there gaping. To placate us, the man threw a pinch of coconut dyed pink into our hands.
I can't wait to go back, seriously.
It seems fair to note that this style of service -- friendly but loopy -- isn't just an eastern phenomenon. We found much the same at the new Fondaines Bistro (736 Ponce de Leon Ave., 404-815-1904). This is in the location of the sorely missed Gumbo a Go Go.
It was to be opened as another Mr. Delicious, the Decatur Cajun restaurant. However, the sad fate of that restaurant's owner ended that plan. "Mr. Delicious" died by his own hand after his terrific restaurant fell into economic failure. Those who do not seize the seriousness of our current economic crisis might do well to read the obituary columns.
Some of Mr. Delicious' proteges have opened Fondaines. Yes, one of our entrees arrived before our appetizers and all the food was a long time coming to the table. The kitchen folks, who also wait tables, chided me for my impatience with their don't-worry-be-happy attitude.
That aside, we dined well and cheaply. Gumbo ($5) could have used more file to suit me, but the huge serving was loaded with shrimp, sausage, chicken and rice, all cooked in a savory stock. Yes, I know the combination raises the eyebrows of purists, but it's a good bowl. Wayne, for some reason skipping over items like salmon croquettes and shrimp beignets, started with a shrimp cocktail ($5.45). Ice-cold shrimp, cooked just right, were served with a remoulade.
For an entree, I order the jambalaya ($7.95). It's a fascinating version -- almost like a Cajun risotto. The Creole sauce seemed a bit light but I'm not complaining much. Wayne ordered crawfish cooked in a white wine and parmesan bisque ($7) -- way too heavy on the wine for me but mighty fine if you're in a heavy-duty artery-clogging mood.
The new restaurant also offers etouffee, po'boys, dinner-style salads and a fried fish of the day.
Leave Cliff Bostock a voice mail at 404-688-5623, ext. 1504, or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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