Indian winter

Visits to new Bollywood Masala and standard-bearer Madras Saravana Bhavan

I am flashing back about six years. Wayne and I were trapped on a bus in Turkey for an eight-hour, overnight ride to Ephesus. The Turks, who think drafts will kill you, wouldn't let me open a window, and the driver refused to run the deadly air conditioning. An attendant cruised up and down the aisle dispensing shot glasses of Pepsi and slices of fruitcake the size of Band-Aids. I wrapped my fingers around my throat and bugged my eyes out, hoping to communicate that I was suffocating from the heat and thirst.

Suddenly, two screens on the bus lit up. For hours thereafter, the weirdest movies I've ever seen played. They featured scene after scene of singing and dancing with no discernible cohesion. I especially remember a long scene of a man rhythmically kissing the air, dressed like an American cowboy. It was several years before I realized that was my first exposure to Bollywood, India's film industry (whose censors rarely permit actual kissing).

The occasion of my flashback was a visit to Bollywood Masala Grill House (2201 Lawrenceville Highway, Suite 101, Decatur, 404-636-6614). This restaurant, which screens clips from Bollywood movies while you dine, is operated by Narendra Patel, who also owns Madras Saravana Bhavan (2179 Lawrenceville Highway, Decatur, 404-636-4400). The restaurants are at opposite ends of the same shopping center. If you wonder which of the two is most popular, just check out the parking lot. The area in front of Madras is packed, while Bollywood's lot is almost deserted.

A visit to both restaurants last week explained the difference. While Madras, strictly vegetarian, attracts a huge crowd of Indian diners, Bollywood's kitschy theme and meat dishes seem to turn out a broader cross-section of diners. It has to be intentional. Even the waitstaff at Bollywood is cross-cultural.

But I'm not willing to say that Bollywood's cuisine is less authentic than Madras'. Just as India's film industry produces regional films in an array of languages, India's cuisine is immensely varied. Thus, Madras serves classic bhel puri - puffed rice with potatoes, onions, crunchy noodles and spices. Bollywood's version, which I much prefer for its lack of sogginess, is made with fried, Chinese-style noodles and nuts.

But other Bollywood starters are downright confusing. Baby corn pakora is a travesty. It's your basic canned baby corn deep-fried in a coating of chickpea flour. Equally weird but far tastier is egg bondas - hard-boiled eggs also deep-fried in chickpea flour. Both dishes reminded me of the kind of thing you'd eat with a jar of pickled pigs feet and a gigantic dill pickle.

Meanwhile, at Madras, the much larger starter menu includes irresistible pani puri - crispy, feather-light globes of bread that you crack open and fill with potatoes, chickpeas, chutney and mint sauce.

Entrees at Bollywood are hit and miss. Sizzling fish turns out to be an almost inedibly dry hunk of flesh dyed red by spices. It is impossible to identify. ("It's probably catfish," the server said.) On the other hand, shrimp varutha curry, featuring a typically floral and oily chettinad sauce, is compelling, though less so than prawn gassi, whose sauce is heavy on coconut with strong notes of cumin. (Warning: Despite the name, the restaurant uses shrimp, not prawns, in this dish.) One of Bollywood's best dishes is vegetarian - kadai bhindi masala, a creamy curry of onions, tomatoes and fried okra. I also like the spicy scrambled eggs served with bread and the masala omelets. I hope you're getting the hint: The simpler the dish here, the better.

What you especially don't get at Bollywood that makes Madras everyone's favorite are dosai - the huge crepes stuffed with a variety of meatless ingredients. Madras features 19 dosai but my favorite is the chettinad-style one stuffed with cauliflower and onions. Its filling is sauced enough that you can forget about eating the entire thing with your fingers, but the flavors are a bit more playful than in other dosai. Another interesting one is the rava masala dosai, whose usual peas, carrots and potatoes are joined by hot green chilies and cashews.

If you want a roundup of flavors, order a thali - a kind of smorgasbord of dishes served in little metal dishes. A smaller thali lets you sample grilled dishes like dosai and idli, while the larger accents curries, breads, rice, a sweet and a few grilled dishes. It's a good choice for newcomers to the cuisine because it immediately defeats the usual prejudice that vegetarian cooking doesn't exhibit much variety.

Although I prefer Madras' cuisine, I have to give Bollywood higher marks for service. Undoubtedly, Madras' inconsistent service is partly the result of its high volume, but - geez - did the server have to plop our ticket on the table without even giving us the chance to order dessert?

Here and thereIndia's Hollywood has also shown up in Midtown. Desi Spice (931 Monroe Drive, 404-872-2220) has opened in Midtown Promenade and features a screen - a much smaller one than at Bollywood's. The menu, alas, is a litany of the usual, but the food was well prepared during a quick visit last week. Lamb pasanda, featuring a buttery sauce with dried fruits and almonds, was especially tasty. ...

Elaine writes to say she has found the best chile relleno ever. It's at the new El Conquistador restaurant in downtown Hapeville. She warns that many dishes are available off the menu at the cafe, which specializes in Puerto Rican as well as Mexican food. ...

Santino's on 10th Street has closed. The location seems to be death to any restaurant that opens there, probably in part because it is such an enormous space. Though not as large, the location of Che on East Paces Ferry, where Blais, Cafe Mystique and Peachtree Cafe have all previously been housed, also seems cursed. Che closed its doors two weeks ago. ...

The best ice cream I've tasted in a long time is Hank's (753 Cherokee Ave., 404- 622-0007) rose petal flavor. If straight-up roses are too intense for you, it's also available swirled with chocolate. Call ahead, because it's only available for a limited time. ...

The Ansley Starbucks, my second office, has remodeled and installed some additional electrical outlets to reduce laptop battles. However, even as they added the outlets, they reduced the number of tables. Mkay.

Leave Cliff Bostock a voicemail at 404-688-5623, ext. 1010, or e-mail him at cliff.bostock@creativeloafing.com.??

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