Atlanta appears to have fallen to the delicious offensive of the Indian snack attack.
The decorous but often dreary Indian restaurants many of us grew up with — acres of red velour, dour waiters in knee-length kurtas, curries spooned from bronze pots — have fallen by the wayside. In their place we see an advancing army of casual, brightly decorated restaurants that specialize in the street foods of Mumbai and Southern India.
If you want proof, just go to the newly expanded Patel Plaza in Decatur, where Tava Bistro, Chat Patti and Royal Sweets offer street food in force. Or the buzzy Chai Pani nearby, where a larger crossover crowd appreciates the few Southern ingredients that find their way onto the menu.
But the biggest, brightest and most bodacious example of this new-style Indian restaurant has opened in Toco Hill. Masti Fun Indian Street Eats looks like the set for a Bollywood musical and exudes a special kind of desi joie de vivre. The menu mixes traditional chaat (savory snacks) with more outlandish fusion creations; you will find, along with the samosas and dosas, Indian versions of hot dogs, burgers and fries. Then, before you leave, you encounter a paan bar filled with all the botanicals, spices and sweets that you chew for a pick-me-up and breath-freshener.
Masti is a huge blast, if — in my opinion, after two meals — an uneven restaurant where you’ll need to make a little effort to eat well. I’ve found the crazier creations more appealing than the straightaway Indian specialties, though all of it is easy enough on the wallet that I want to keep exploring. People will ask, so let me get this out of the way fast: I much prefer Chai Pani, where the menu is smaller but the cooking more assured and nuanced.
Set in the former Cibo Rustico (and Mirko Pasta before that), Masti has upholstered the once-sedate space with bolts of patterned fabric, its bright colors echoed in the bowl of multihued fried snacks that greet you at the table. You can get an Indian beer (which, oddly enough, arrives in a Mason jar), a frothy, milky ginger tea or a nimbu pani — the Indian lemonade flavored with savory black salt. The version here is so sweet it is viscous. One sip does nicely.
Where to start on the long, hilarious menu, filled with poke-in-the-ribs commentary such as, “Indian burgers!!! What!!??!!”
What what? A pair of small chicken masala burgers, the grilled slices of meat sliding around with lettuce, tomato and sweet-spicy sauce, were kind of snarftastic, particularly with a handful of black salt-dusted fries as a chaser. I had less interest in a pair of “tacos” formed of the rice-and-lentil-flour pancakes called uthappam, then filled with ground lamb keema and shreds of cheddar cheese. This pancake was too thick and floppy to work as a conveyance, though the keema hit the spot — sloppy Joe of the gods. Try it inside a huge, crisp dosa and you’ll find your happy place.
Then again, Masti masala fries — kind of a mashup of poutine and a Mumbai-style chaat — seemed on the verge of junk-food greatness. The fries were too limp with the lashings of russet “Masti sauce,” paneer cheese and tomato. But if there had been a bit of crispness here and there I might have polished off the plate rather eating a mere 75 percent of it.
The right texture, that sensation of sogginess creeping up on crunch, is key to Indian snacks, and something that Masti doesn’t always nail. This restaurant’s version of bhel puri is called “Chinese bhel” thanks to the topping of fried Chinese noodles on the traditional toss of puffed rice, sev (chickpea flour noodes), onions, tomato, cilantro and chutneys. Some versions elsewhere are like a snack food salad — each crisp item just anointed in dressing. Here, the ingredients arrived damply pasted together.
Papdi chaat, on the other hand, should be like a perfect bowl of Frosted Flakes, for which you have to count to 10 Mississippi before eating. Here, fried chickpeas, fried flour crisps and potato meet tomatoes, onions, chutneys and yogurt. But the fried bits were so dry they rang in my ears when I bit down.
While I’m at it, I didn’t care much for Masti’s version of butter chicken, which comes in a variety of guises, not least of which as the centerpiece of a not-great full meal thali. The sauce sure had that thick blanket of tomato and cream, but not the silk sheets underneath the blanket — those fleeting flavors of ginger and warm spices that can make butter chicken so special.
If you’re hankering for chicken, let me steer you to the chicken momos, Nepali-style steamed dumplings with a terrific, snappy bite and a filling of spiced ground chicken. I get the feeling there are more treasures on this vast menu, so my best advice may be to just point at anything and see what comes.
And, whatever you do, make sure you get a guided tour of the paan bar on the way out. While you won’t get an actual triangular folded paan bundle, you can try deconstructed versions of popular ones and experience a peculiar rush of sweetness and astringency. It seems like such an important part of the vibrant life of the Indian palate, and Masti wants you to get with the program.
Works for me. I’m happy to trade in the tandoori chicken of yesteryear and have some fun.
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