First Look: Madras Woodlands

Plus, a sneak peek at Empire State South

I used to enjoy the restaurant Bollywood Masala. It shared the same shopping center as Madras Saravana Bhavan, its wildly popular, all-vegetarian sister restaurant. Bollywood's food wasn't as good, but it offered meat dishes and, more important, a delightfully kitschy vibe replete with video glimpses of India's musical films.

I'm not sure why, but the restaurant closed after a fairly brief run, then reopened as Madras Chettinaad, which also closed. Now, new owners have reopened it as Madras Woodlands (2201 Lawrenceville Highway, Decatur, 404-248-9333).

The name caught my attention because it's also the name of a well-known restaurant in New York. It turns out that there are countless restaurants in America with the name. It refers, according to our server, to a defining restaurant group in India.

Like Bollywood, Woodlands serves meat (Halal only) and vegetarian dishes. They are, according to the menu, prepared separately. Unlike Bollywood, Woodlands has a rather startling, minimalist look. The dining room, painted ochre, is cavernous but brightly lit with little to distract the eye, except for a bar where the employees gathered and eyed the few diners there during our visit. That's not a comment on the food, because it turned out they'd only been open a few days when we visited.

I'm doubtful the restaurant will pull much trade away from Madras, at the other end of the shopping center, which is still popular despite its new owners. We found our food good but not great. Despite a gigantic menu, we didn't find much that was new to us. What was new was mainly unavailable.

We did make a mistake ordering our appetizers after getting confused information from our server. They were both deep fried. One was egg pakoda — hard-boiled eggs halved, dipped in chickpea batter and fried. The other dish, prepared the same way, featured hot green peppers. They were served with the usual sauces of mint, coconut, and tomato chutney. The long peppers were absolutely fiery, like super-hot jalapeños. I ended up removing the thick breading and eating it with the sauces. The egg version was generally more palatable to me, although the breading seemed overly thick.

Wayne's entrée, crab kurma, was the most interesting dish we ordered. We were unfamiliar with it and our server added to our confusion again. We asked if it was made with soft-shell crabs, because he used the word "soft" several times and the menu said the crab was fried. He said that it indeed was made with soft-shell crabs. Not. It was a bowl full of steamed crab claws in a fascinating, somewhat sweet sauce redolent of cinnamon. We liked the dish, but I don't like the tedium of breaking open claws — especially without any instruments to aid me.

There are 22 dosai on the menu, so I felt obligated to try one. I picked the "special rava masala dosai." It was made with rice flour and cream of wheat, but I did not receive the "garnish of onions, chilies, curry leaves and cashew nuts." It was stuffed with the usual potatoes, onions and green peas and tasted great dipped in sambal. But there was nothing "special" about it at all.

We also ordered (more) deep-fried cauliflower in a tomato-based curry. This dish is one of my favorites and Woodlands does it better than many I've tried. The batter was light compared to our starters. Finally, we ordered "bullet naan," supposedly topped with fresh garlic, green chilies and cilantro. All we got was the cilantro.

Generally, we enjoyed our meal despite the noted omissions. I'm not sure why the miscommunication occurred with our server, since he spoke perfect English. I think, perhaps, the staff needs better education about the menu.

A brief preview

I'll have more to say next week, but I would feel remiss if I didn't mention my lunch at Empire State South (999 Peachtree St., 404-541-1105, www.empirestatesouth.com), the eagerly anticipated restaurant from Hugh Acheson of Five & Ten in Athens.

My lunch was absolutely extraordinary. I've not dined at the Five & Ten, so I wasn't sure what to expect. The menu here is purely Southern and operates like a classic meat-and-two café.

What makes the mind reel eating Acheson's food — he is assisted by Nick Melvin — is the intensity of flavors. I ordered pan-roasted trout from North Carolina, topped with charred corn that tasted like elote with a note of lime. The fish itself was flawless.

But what really got my attention were my two sides. One was slightly crisp roasted okra mixed with slivers of buttered almond. The other was baby eggplant with a surprising sweetness to it, enhanced by a mystery ingredient. This was accompanied by a perfect cornbread muffin, not sweet but just as potent in its flavor as everything else. And that's what's so phenomenal here — the incredible range of flavors in classic dishes.

I finished with chocolate pudding (served in a jar) with a side of caramelized popcorn. It was real pudding, not chocolate mousse. You'll want two jars.

Run, don't walk.

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