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Indian food flourishes in Decatur

Visits to Thali and Luqma

The Atlanta area — especially Decatur — is lucky to have an enormous population of Indian natives and their American-born children. I remember 30 years ago when there were very few Indian restaurants in our city. The best, not far from Emory, was famous for dumping scalding-hot spices in the food of obnoxious diners. In the years since then, the city and its suburbs have filled with Indian restaurants.

India has countless regional cuisines and my meal at Thali (1709 Church St., Decatur, 678-705-1290) last week was an introduction to the Gujarati cuisine of western India. I confess I did not tell my usual Friday night dining companions that the restaurant's cuisine is vegetarian. Every time I've suggested a meatless meal, Bobby, our leader, has rejected it instantly, despite my promise that he won't miss the hunks of flesh. And he didn't.

Thali is an almost weirdly unique space. It's inside Patel Plaza. You walk through the door and the first thing you see is a rustic, hut-like space full of short benches and luxuriously upholstered pillows for eating on the floor, the traditional way for Gujaratis. I have knees that never recovered from botched surgery five years ago, so I asked that we be seated at the table and chairs at the opposite end of the cavernous space.

The most striking visual effect of the restaurant is its huge painted windows that cast a golden glow over the otherwise barely decorated space. The restaurant is off a brightly lit hall, so you get the effect at dinner or lunch.

The next most captivating quality of the restaurant is the staff, which appears to be mainly young American-raised Indians. Their fluency means that you get a very thorough education in west Indian food. This is no small thing, considering that the prix fixe meal ($14.99) is a series of four courses served mainly on huge metal thalis, the traditional partitioned plates. We were shocked when we were informed that the first thali, with six different dishes, was just an appetizer plate. And it's all-you-can-eat. Several at our table asked for seconds of a few dishes throughout the meal.

I'm not going to attempt to describe each dish we were served. Most of the appetizers were fried, served with mint, tamarind and hot sauces. I found the apps and the entrées that followed pretty bland. On the other hand, my tablemates found the food quite spicy. I'm not sure why some people are so tormented by a bit of fire in their food and others can't get enough — experience, I guess.

The entrée portion of the meal was also six dishes with roti, the traditional bread, plus puri. The roti, I'm sorry to say, was unpleasantly chewy. The plate included some tasty millet bread, a couple of simple vegetable curries and a soup with the usual daal base but sweetened with something like allspice. Potatoes abounded in both of the first two thalis.

Next was a course of two rices. I'm unaccustomed to eating rice without curries (and vice versa), so I had no idea what to do with the plain white rice on the platter, except to spoon some of the table sauces over it, as the server suggested. The more intriguing rice, khichdi, was like custardy risotto, full of vegetables and more potatoes. Unfortunately, it was served barely tepid and was too coagulated for my taste.

The final course was dessert — strawberry ice cream or traditional masala chai, skipped by most at the table.

Thali is a family restaurant, so expect to encounter children. I ended up playing a bit with three beautiful girls who assumed different poses for pictures. The place is fun. I'm conflicted about the quality of the food, which I'm told can vary significantly from visit to visit. But I totally loved the experience.

Oh, a warning: Our tip was included in the bill. But it was less than I usually tip, so that was fine.

Nearby

Across the street from Patel Plaza is Luqma (1706 Church St., 404-477-1400), an Indo-Pakistani restaurant located in a former Long John Silver's. Like nearby Zyka, Luqma (which means "morsel") serves meat. The food is 100-percent halal and Luqma was offering a special take-out Ramadan menu when Wayne and I visited.

I'm always confused about the difference in Pakistani and Indian food. And, that evening, nobody working at the counter seemed to speak English fluent enough to point out the Pakistani dishes. The most I ever get, anyway, is that besides the greater use of meat, Pakistan's cuisine is mainly inspired by North Indian cooking but is more broadly influenced by other cultures, including Iran.

Since we were unable to identify the Pakistani dishes, we blindly ordered familiar dishes — saag paneer (spinach with cheese), bagara baingan (eggplant), chana masala (chick peas) and nehari (a beef curry). The latter is the restaurant's specialty.

We enjoyed the meal. I wouldn't call the food better than average, but for about $6 a plate, it's a great bargain.



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