Saravanaa Bhavan and Mirch Masala, Decatur GA

It has been several months since I went out for any Indian food. Longtime readers might recall that my favorite Indian restaurant in the region, Roswell’s Moksha, had closed, and I made a couple of fitful attempts to find a replacement. I found some pretty good food, but nothing remarkable, and I got a little discouraged and bored and resumed finding more barbecue and burger places.

In April, writing for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution‘s “Food and More” blog, Gene Lee recommended three Indian restaurants in Decatur. This was part of the blog’s “Spring Dining 2011” guide and got me thinking. Maybe Marie and I could do a tour of all three one Saturday…?

Well, I was sort of stymied here, as Marie really doesn’t care all that much for Indian food. You’ll notice she has been absent from this blog’s few trips to Indian restaurants. She does like a little curry powder with her chicken salad, but otherwise most of that region’s cuisine does not appeal to her. Nevertheless, she agreed that we could give it a try if I would compromise and drop it to two restaurants. We took the baby and my older son and our good buddy David along and figured out the best way to plan these two lunches.

First up, we went to a vegetarian restaurant, where we planned that Marie would have a full meal, I would have an appetizer, and our older son would drum his fingers impatiently and wait for his larger meal at the next destination. I was sweet; I let him have an order of plantain bhaji that was quite delicious and had a nice level of spice to it.

Saravanaa Bhavan is the second restaurant by that name to occupy this space. The earlier version closed in 2008 and was bought by an international chain of hotels and vegetarian restaurants. This particular location doesn’t actually have any guest rooms, but the chain itself is kind of like a Howard Johnson’s that specializes in dosa. This is a huge, thin filled crepe and I think of it as a counterpoint to an uthappam, which is thicker, like a pancake. There’s a big window into the kitchen where you can watch the staff make the dosas and other treats.

Taking Lee’s recommendation, Marie ordered the masala dosa, which is the crepe filled with a curried mashed potato. It’s enormous, and served with four different dipping sauces. She also had an order of buttered naan and this was more food than she felt like tackling. In her defense, unfortunately, the atmosphere here did her in. While the food was all indeed very good, the restaurant ruined the air inside with the most noxious, repugnant incense by the entrance. Frankly, we couldn’t wait to leave. My tomato and pea uthappam was genuinely good and I enjoyed the flavor of everything here, but I sure do wish that I could have enjoyed it in better circumstances.

On that note, “couldn’t wait to leave” has proven, in my experience, to be a common problem at Indian restaurants from here to Toronto. There has not been a one, except the ones where you pay up front, where flagging a server down to get a blasted check has not been a chore. Neither of the places that we visited on this trip were in a hurry to see us go. We wanted to leave Saravanaa Bhavan because the air stank. We wanted to leave Mirch Masala because we were stuffed.

My heart sank as we entered Mirch Masala, which is located about three minutes’ south of Saravanaa Bhavan. It’s one of those Indian restaurants that suggests upscale by way of nice napkins and tuxedo-clad servers, but it’s hopelessly artificial. The menus are in leather cases, but the laminate on the heavy paper pages is peeling, comically, as they fall apart. There’s a 15% service fee on tables of four. Not six; four. Frankly, I hated the place so much that the best Indian food I ever had wouldn’t bring me back. Then I had some of the best Indian food I ever had and I was conflicted.

Gene Lee had recommended the chicken tikka masala here and I wanted to try it. Unfortunately, it was not on the buffet – $9.95 for weekend lunch – but priced at $11.95 for an order. I bit the bullet and was completely thrilled with it. The chicken was tender and flavored and seasoned just perfectly, and served in a deep red sauce that reminded me of molten lava. “It looks,” observed my son and channeling Ralph Wiggum, “like… hot.” He wasn’t kidding. I’ve had more lethally spicy food than this, but not often. It was majestic.

Marie ordered some rice called kashimiri pullao (basmati rice cooked with dried fruit) that she enjoyed, and they gave her enough to last for a subsequent lunch. My son and David each enjoyed some of the food on the buffet, which included both curried goat and chicken, and a spinach paneer that David said was excellent and as good as he’d ever had it. Food-wise, this place really was a winner. It’s a shame they had to spoil it by giving us such pathetic service and presentation.

Adding insult to injury, it took us about fifteen minutes after finishing our food to get a check. I don’t think this is all that complicated, really.

I’ll try again in a few months. There has to be a place in town that will give me excellent Indian food outside of a plastic quasi-upscale environment with attentive service at a fair price. Somewhere.

(Note: Saravanaa Bhavan briefly closed at the end of 2012 before reopening as Madras Bhavan, no longer affiliated with the hotel Saravanaa chain. I understand that it is still a vegetarian restaurant.)