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Restaurant Review - Yabba Daabha do!

Technicolor treats at Daabha Indian Cafe in Marietta



Here are some intriguing tidbits you may not know:

- There are nine artificial Food, Drug and Cosmetic (FD&C) colors certified by the Food and Drug Administration, seven of which are approved for use in food.

- Along with their official names, like FD&C Blue No. 2, these food colorings also have festive common names like Fast Green, Allura Red and Sunset Yellow.

- Despite a prevalent theory in the '70s, extensive studies have shown that food coloring does not cause hyperactivity or learning disabilities in children.

- Some foods where artificial coloring shows up unexpectedly include oranges, shrimp, beer and wasabi. Many folks are also surprised to learn that tandoori chicken is dyed red.

I offer the above brain fodder on the kaleidoscopic world of food coloring (with thanks to Google) as a primer to Daabha Indian Cafe in Marietta. Most Indian restaurants add extra hues to their dishes here and there, but at Daabha they go all out. Every day brings Christmas on a plate.

Hariyali Murgh, one of Daabha's signature dishes, is a vivid example. Pieces of chicken breast are marinated in yogurt tempered with mint, fenugreek and other spices and cooked, kebab-style, in the tandoor oven. The chicken has a wonderfully velvety texture, with an elusively minty kick. But wow, is this dish green! Green like the forest primeval. Green enough to make Mr. Green Jeans green with envy. Much greener than the pale neon sign bearing the restaurant's name over the counter where you place your orders.

The crowds can at Daabha be as colorful as the food. It's typical to see an Indian fellow showing his wary Caucasian office comrades the ropes of the menu at lunch. At night, the diverse crowds (families, foraging foodies, large groups of friends) ebb and flow. The strip mall in which Daabha is located has a great feng shui vantage point. It's poised on a hill and since there are no tall buildings nearby, the sky looks astoundingly vast. Round concrete tables are available for eating outside, an appealing option in September's softening heat.

Daabha is a laid-back operation. There's no table service. Pictures of mounded Indian spices and prints by Rodin adorn the mostly bare walls. You place your order, pay and take a light-up coaster like you get at Fuddruckers that alerts you when your food is ready. You eat off paper plates and the food is served in Styrofoam containers.

The first round of red lights on your trusty coaster lets you know your appetizers are up. I love the Chili Gobi — fried cauliflower marinated in soy sauce. (This dish is one of only a few holdovers from an additional Indian-Chinese menu that Daabha no longer offers.) The cauliflower has a nice crunch and comes with a pool of chili dipping sauce the color of the cherry lollipops they used to give out in pediatricians' offices.

I gravitate toward anything that has paneer, those cubes of fresh cheese most often paired with spiced spinach, but Paneer Kholiwada is one of the stranger variations I've encountered. The cheese is dunked in a spicy scarlet batter and fried until crispy and caramelized. They taste like Indian Cracker Jacks. I much prefer the Methi Paneer, a silky dish of paneer simmered in a cream sauce flavored with pleasantly bitter fenugreek.

Order several main dishes to share (most cost around five or six bucks) to sample a wide spectrum of tastes and textures. There's a blackboard of "specials" written in neat script behind the counter, though many of the items listed are also on the regular menu.

Butter chicken, a slight variation on the tikka masala served at other Indian restaurants, is chunks of tandoori-baked bird wallowing in an easygoing, magenta-colored sauce. Pair that with Dal Makhani (lentils and kidney beans cooked slowly in a dusky sauce with a cumin tang) and fiery Baghara Baingan (eggplant with coconut, tomatoes and curry leaves).

A couple things to avoid: The lamb kebab is dry and chewy. Ginger paneer, another holdover from the axed Indian-Chinese menu, comes in a thick paste more sweet than gingery. Rogan gosht, a goat stew, needs the spice upped and the goat removed from the gnarly little bones.

Rice does not come with the main dishes. You can order plain rice for a dollar, but a better idea is to indulge in one of their superb pilafs. Murg dum biryani is cooked with yogurt and saffron marinated chicken. For non meat-eaters, the tarkari biryani is full of vegetables and whole spices. Beware biting the pods of cardamom, lest you get a jarring mouthful of pungent spice.

There's not much in the way of dessert. They've got ye olde gulab jamin floating in its usual bath of rose water, or rasgulla, oddly bland dumplings in barely flavored sugar syrup. If you're jonesing for something sweet, order a smooth mango lassi for the table and grab a couple straws. It's got a remarkable pale orange cast to it. Those mangos must be really ripe ... or has Daabha's color guard struck again?

Don't get me wrong — I ain't knockin' their style. A little day-glo curry never hurt anyone, and a lot of the soulful fare here is delicious. It certainly is bright, though.

bill.addison@creativeloafing.com