Indian summer

Puri pleasure at Panahar, Bombay Grill and Madras Saravana Bhavan

"Semantics," Mirza Ameen told me as we pored over the menu at Panahar (3375 Buford Highway, 404-633-6655).

He was answering my question about the difference between Indian and Bangladeshi cuisine. "All food throughout India and Bangladesh is very similar," he said, "but it is different, too. You would not say the food of Mississippi and Kansas is the same, but it would have much in common, yes?"

I looked at him blankly. We had actually come to Panahar in search of northern Indian cooking and, while the sign out front said, "Bangladesh," the menu remains Indian with a strong northern accent. "Oh," he said, "we are in transition since last December when I bought the restaurant. The chef is now from Bangladesh and so is the entire staff, so whatever you order is definitely Bangladeshi."

Actually, if you make any effort to discern the difference in regional cuisines in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, you'll quickly become confused.

While it's common to discern between the vegetarian cooking of the south and the use of meat in the north, this rule quickly breaks down because Muslim and Hindu religious practices influence the diet throughout the country. There are plenty of vegetarians in the north, in other words, and some meat eaters in the south. Spices and the use of dairy products do vary regionally, but those too can be regulated by religion. Ayurvedic practices, for example, require that food carefully balance sweet and sour, hot and spicy flavors. We found that Bangladeshi cuisine is generally milder than spicy Southern cooking and Mr. Ameen validated our conclusion.

We asked Mr. Ameen, who once managed the Abbey, to recommend some dishes. We started with shrimp puri ($5.95). Puri, a big circle of fried wheat bread, is also a usual characteristic of northern cuisine. All Indian meals tend to be built around a starch and in the south, it's usually rice while in the north, it's a bread like puri. We were instructed to flatten the puffy bread and cover it with the shrimp, sauteed with onions in a sauce spiked with ginger, garlic, cumin and coriander. Then we rolled it up and ate it like a burrito.

For entrees, he recommended two off-the-menu dishes — lamb with lentils ($11.95) for me and beef with chickpeas ($8.95) for Wayne. We also ordered eggplant cooked with tomatoes ($7.95), mango chutney, rice with peas, raita, bitter mixed pickles and aloo paratha (unleavened bread stuffed with potatoes).

Mr. Ameen, who earlier explained that "panahar" means "having a complete meal at someone's house," insisted that we eat properly. "Put some rice on your plate and add one of the dishes," he said. "Mix it very well. The more you mix it, the better it tastes. You may add the condiments, like the chutney, but you do not add another main dish and you only take more after you've finished what's on your plate."

We enjoyed most everything. The one exception was the eggplant, which we found very overcooked despite Mr. Ameen's statement that Bangladeshi-style eggplant is less cooked than most Indian versions.

One don't-miss here is the mango lassi ($2.50). Mr. Ameen makes the classic yogurt drink with pure mango fruit instead of juice and the difference is remarkable. It is, however, far too rich to begin a meal.

Bombay Grill
A few days later, on a recommendation from one of Wayne's Indian co-workers at the CDC, we headed to Bombay Grill (2165 Savoy Drive, Chamblee, 678-530-9555). Located on a street that runs parallel to I-285, just off the Chamblee-Dunwoody exit, the restaurant is housed in a recently expanded former Steak & Ale.

The restaurant is utterly huge. The dining room was undergoing renovation when we visited and we ate in the enormous banquet room where no more than five other tables were being served early on a Wednesday night. Our waitress was knowledgeable about her country's cuisine, articulate and direct in that pointed way many Indians have.

"Now," I said, "this looks a lot like every other Indian restaurant's menu. What region?"

"Everything is from the north. Everything," she said. She then proceeded to interview our palates and plan our meal. We started with shrimp jhinga ($8.95) — grilled shrimp in a piquant sauce of garlic and curry leaves with mustard seeds. We were less pleased with paneer — homemade cheese cooked in a tandoor with bell peppers, onions and tomatoes ($8.95). Although a mysterious marinade had rendered the onions a perfumy blend of sweet and acrid, the cheese was drier than we would have liked.

As an entree, I ordered a rack of lamb marinated in spiced yogurt and baked in a tandoor ($16.95). The four chops, each one sporting an elaborate tinfoil tail, were brought to the table on an onion-garnished sizzling platter. At turns slightly sour and sweet, the lamb was succulent and tender.

Wayne ordered a Madras curry ($13.95) featuring a nameless but very meaty fish. It's described as mild on the menu, but we found our sinuses flaring with every tasty bite.

The don't-miss dish here is dewandi handi ($9.95). The kitchen grinds fresh spinach, baby eggplant, radish and broccoli together. It is seasoned with cardamon and a nut-like spice that gives it a slightly crunchy texture.

Madras Saravana Bhavan
The most popular Indian restaurant in town these days is the frequently reviewed and inevitably idealized Madras Saravana Bhavan (2179 Lawrenceville Highway, Decatur, 404-636-4400). It has replaced the heavenly Udipi as many people's favorite for Indian vegetarian cuisine.

The vegetarian cuisine of India is without doubt the world's most accomplished. People who swear they can't abide a meal without meat never miss it after they sample the greaseless flavors and infinite textures of food like Madras'. (This restaurant, incidentally, was opened by the original owners of Madras Cafe on Briarcliff, which has, under new management, added meat to its menu.)

I visited with my new CL colleague Bill Addison, a lapsed vegetarian who is a regular at the restaurant, which is located in a remodeled Folks and has a very attentive staff. Yes, the food is astounding and especially welcome after dining on so many creamy Indian dishes elsewhere.

Bhel puri, which I first came to love at Indian Delights, combines puffed rice and potatoes with hot chilies, sweet chutney and cilantro ($4.95). Unfortunately, and it was my only negative experience at the restaurant, the puffed rice was soggy — possibly from being mixed too long in advance.

Puri snacks ($3.50 each) are little crackery globes that you break open with your thumb and fill with a variety of ingredients. Pani puri is fill-it-yourself with potatoes, beans, coconut chutney and mint sauce. Masala puri, the better choice, comes assembled with the same ingredients plus yogurt and onions.

The main feature here is the menu of dosai — the huge crepes made of rice and lentil flour and rolled around a variety of ingredients. We tried the spring dosai ($7), my favorite at Udipi. Here it is more loosely constructed, its filling of potatoes, cauliflower and carrots almost spilling out of the crepe that has been cut into sections. I am most anxious to see the family-sized masala dosai. It's 6 feet long!

You'll also find thalis (tasty vegetable samples served on a metal tray from little cups), uthamppam (flat pancakes topped with different ingredients) and various vegetarian curries. For dessert, order pista kulfi, a rich ice cream ($2.50) which caused Bill's spoon to fly at a furious pace.

I'm pleased to say our new critic is not a light and fussy eater. He packs it in.

Leave Cliff Bostock a voice mail at 404-688-5623, ext. 1504, or e-mail him at cliff.bostock@creativeloafing.com.??

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