Cheap Eats - Moti Mahal

A pearl of quick Indian cuisine

From the outside, you won't think much of this semi-industrial strip of shops and restaurants. But this is where you must go to find Atlanta's better Indian restaurants: the fringes of Decatur. Inside, signs remain of former tenant Aangan (which is where I thought I was dining until I showed up and Moti Mahal had taken its place — ahh, the fickleness of the restaurant world). Owner Gulam Ali Rajkot Wala says the new menus are arriving soon. At the moment, they're using Aangan's old ones, although they've been open for three months.

The restaurant now claims to be Indo-Pak, but it's mostly standard Indian fare. Wala's wife is Pakistani, so the management is 50/50. The quaint atmosphere of small tables tucked between plaster walls, simple ethnic cloth hangings and bare-bones decorating are the backdrop for the buffet at the end of the room.

A quick history lesson: Moti Mahal, or the Pearl Palace, is the name of the historic building on the fringes of Gomti, India, built by Sadaat Ali Khan between 1798-1814. The name of the building refers to the pearl-shaped dome that was once painted a shining white. This restaurant should not be mistaken for the actual Moti Mahal, but rather just a bit of a cultural barter for Atlanta's own good.

What we ate: Of course there's a menu that runs the gamut of prices and choices, but people keep coming back for the all-you-can-eat selections. For a small buffet, there are more choices than you'd normally get a chance to swallow if you ordered from the standard menu. At $6.99 on the weekdays and $7.99 on the weekends, you get a whole lot for your money.

Entree choices rotate and include chicken palak (creamed spinach with boneless chicken cubes and spices), onion pakoda (fried, breaded onion balls), aloo gobi (curried cauliflower and potatoes), channa paswari (spicy garbanzo beans), spicy chicken wings, along with a salad and desserts — bhol poori on last investigation. The weekends usually include seafood dishes as well, which explains the extra dollar charge.

Overall the dishes hold up under the lights and steam-warmers of the buffet table. The onion pakoda would taste better served fresh from the kitchen. In the buffet, it cools off and loses its crispness. My favorite dish was the chicken palak. Despite containing quite a bit of grease, it retained its consistency and was a hearty meal to scoop up with pieces of naan. I avoided the bhol poori. The Canadian world traveler I dined with said it would be sweet, rich and cold, three things that I wasn't really looking for at the moment.

Service: I'll give away the secret: When you walk in, don't even take your seat and wait, start digging in. Wala and his wife provide the two-person service tag team, and they aren't specific about taking orders — they figure you're getting the buffet. I didn't see anyone else try to order anything; we weren't even handed menus. So don't wait for an invitation, get your plate and start piling it on. Refills on water (which you will need to counter the spices) and new baskets of naan do get sparse when no new diners enter. I guess they figure you're content to serve yourself, so pray for new people every 10 minutes or so, then you can soothe your scorching tongue regularly.

Wait time: None to speak of, unless three people crowd around the chickpeas at the same time.

Who to take? A great place for a lunchtime meeting of the minds. Maybe you can find a couple of friends and chow down on your way to the DeKalb Farmer's Market for grocery shopping. You know what they say: Never shop hungry — and you won't even want to look at food after an hour or more sitting around Moti Mahal stuffing yourself.

Best reason to show up: Naan is included in the price of the buffet. It's made fresh and arrives at the table hot from the oven. When you can pay anywhere from $2-$5 for plates of naan to accompany food at other restaurants, this is a great bonus. The Indian equivalent of cornbread or a biscuit, the naan thankfully never has to end — or go cold — as you sop up curries and other spicy concoctions.

Overall rating (out of 4):??