When I think of Indian cuisine, a particular dish is not what comes to mind. Rather, it is the spice rack. It is cumin, coriander, cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, black pepper, fenugreek, mustard seeds, tamarind, turmeric, saffron. It is whole, dry spices, pan-toasted or wet-fried to draw out their complexity, with the added bonus that they fill the kitchen with a heady fragrance.
The first thing I noticed upon setting foot inside new Inman Park restaurant Amara was that the aroma of an Indian kitchen did not permeate the air. And, while the Indian food-lover and Penzeys Spice buyer in me would wish to be greeted at Amara with intoxicating smells of spices and herbs, Amara is not really an Indian restaurant. Or, more accurately, it’s not only an Indian restaurant.
Amara is best described as Indian-inspired. Sister restaurant to Tabla in Midtown, Amara seems to fit into the pattern of upscale, ethnic-with-a-bent dining concepts popping up all over Atlanta. And, it’s not just the Indian-New American menu that makes it different from Indian-Indian restaurants. The bilevel space — a street-level bar overlooking a sunken dining room and open kitchen — is industrial cool, with nightclub-esque blue neon lights and a bit of Bollywood techno tunes. Welcome to the new age of Indian dining in the South.
If you need a drink to open your mind, start with the East India Cocktail or the Jaggery Old Fashioned. The former takes as its base cognac and rum, the latter bourbon. Both are a bit potent but better balanced than cocktails that ranged from overly sweet (Pear Necessities) to hollow (The 870).
The majority of dishes at Amara fuse Indian flavors into chef-y creations, some highly stylized. It’s an interesting selection to explore, and one developed by executive chef Bhavesh Patel. His 18-year career has seen the London-born Patel as chef de cuisine at the now-defunct Spice Market at the W Atlanta Midtown hotel, as executive chef for the Woodruff Arts Center, including its upscale dining venue known as Table 1280 during his tenure, as the owner of a catering company specializing in Indian weddings, and most recently, as chef de cuisine at Morningside Kitchen.
Patel’s Juhu Peanuts are coated in garlic confit, red onion, cilantro and a chaat masala spice blend. The flavor was outstanding. Take note, though, that this is a snack of wet peanuts eaten with a spoon. The thick-cut Crispy Pig Ears, though appealingly seasoned, with jaggery adding a hint of brown sugar sweetness, were too oily to be addictive. Far better was the chutney tasting, a trio of chutneys with house-made papadum, the tortilla-like fried wafers a fantastic vessel for transporting mango chutney to mouth.
Appetizers are particularly progressive-leaning. Sometimes they work and sometimes they do not. In one instance, a small plate of fatty pork belly was nicely crisped, the centerpiece 63-degree egg quivering, its yolk just waiting to be pierced. Yet on a separate visit, the pork belly tasted more like sausage, came out lukewarm and the egg not quite so soft. Both times, the drizzle of jaggery caramel felt nonessential.
Chicken wings in chili-garlic sauce were satisfying even without dipping into the house-made ranch dressing, but the accompanying shishito peppers on the plate might have had more pop if they’d been blistered rather than wilted.
Paneer gnocchi, though clever, was not light and fluffy. Nor did it have much color to dress it up, apart from a few chili pepper rings. Served on a bed of rice, it was also a starchy carb on carb presentation that didn’t find an accord in the same way that rice pairs so well with carb-laden pulses.
Execution fell flat on a lamb biriyani. The basmati rice and meat were both dry, and held barely a whiff of aromatic spices. Among the curry offerings, saag paneer brought meltingly soft spinach with chunks of cheese, but the dish lacked the silky texture that makes saag magical.
Tandoori appetizers like a Duo Chicken Tikka, Masala Prawns and Octopus, mains like Patrani fish of red snapper wrapped in a banana leaf and short ribs in a near Mexican mole-looking cinnamon curry were all competently prepared proteins. Did they wow? No.
What did wow at Amara was its staff. The team on the floor is knowledgeable, accessible and happy to guide you toward what might best please your taste buds. I appreciate the forthright server who, when asked about a dish, could not recommend it because she hadn’t yet tasted it. However, she had many others to propose, including the lentils.
Any meal at Amara should include an order of 24-hour lentils. Legume lovers will lap up these creamy, tomato-y black lentils. This bowl will make believers out of dal haters. The sour-tangy amchur chickpeas, too. Tandoor-smoked aubergine might do the same for the eggplant averse, especially those who heed the advice of the server who suggests scooping up the smoky, meaty pulp with venison kheema kulcha, a house-made Indian flatbread stuffed with ground venison. (Breads are good here. Also try the truffle Gruyere kulcha and the plain naan.)
Flavors and ingredients from every part of the globe are now accessible to chefs. It’s exciting that the Amara kitchen, led by Patel, is exploring ingredient combinations we’ve not seen before. The catch is that some flavors aren’t cohesive, like the coupling of Romesco sauce and a caper kachumber (an onion-tomato-cucumber relish) for the Tandoori Octopus. As dramatically composed as that dish may be, those elements did not unite. And, in the quest to update Indian fare, some dishes lacked the layers of flavor, the depth and complexity so intricately associated with Indian cookery.
I hope Amara finds a way to better meld its different culinary impulses. Arranged marriages sometimes work. Forced marriages usually don’t.