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Review: Madras Mantra serves masterful masala sans meat

For nearly the past two decades, one Indian restaurant or another has been located at 2179 Lawrenceville Highway in the North DeKalb Square shopping center.

There have been different names and different owners. There have been good years and bad years. There has been lots and lots of curry. Three years ago, one of those previous owners, the restaurateur Narendra Patel, returned to this strip mall and opened Madras Mantra. This has turned out to be very good news.

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The lunch buffet at Madras Mantra offers a wealth of options. Though it’s served every day, the selection is larger on weekends. CONTRIBUTED BY HENRI HOLLIS

One only needs to visit the lunch buffet on a weekend to see the following this restaurant has built. The buffet is served every day, but the selection is larger on the weekends and the crowds are, too. People patiently line up with their plates and bowls, selecting from dozens of curries and sambars and chutneys and breads.

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In all truth, on my visits, this buffet has been a little too much for me. There are so many options, rich and aromatic and calling my name as I walk along the steam tables, that I can hardly concentrate on the merits of any individual dish. Faced with this, I become something like the mythical mule who starved to death when given the option of two equally appealing bales of hay. I become paralyzed by indecision, which happens to be rather annoying if you’re standing behind me in the buffet line. This is, I admit, the fault of a neurotic restaurant critic, not any fault of the restaurant.

In any case, I have learned over the course of several recent meals that Madras Mantra is a restaurant I prefer at night, with a cold bottle of Kingfisher or a nice glass of red. The wine list here does leave something to be desired, but the waiters will gladly uncork and pour any bottle you bring for only a small fee. Once you’re settled in with a good drink, the thing to do is to order a few small plates from the extensive list of appetizers.

A platter of onion spinach pakora is a fine choice. The green leaves and onion are shredded and folded into delicate, light fritters of chickpea flour. When they come out of the deep fryer, they are light golden brown orbs of lacy, crunchy goodness that only gets better when dipped into the accompanying bowl of coriander chutney.

Idlys, coin-sized cakes made from lentils and rice, are offered in several different preparations. I prefer the masala variation, where the cakes are tossed in a little spice mixture and mince of red onion and cilantro. Dredged though a little red chutney, each bite packs a mildly spicy, bright punch.

A bowl of Bombay bhel is fine, too. Puffed rice is tossed in a sweet mixture of chutneys, onions, tomatoes and potatoes, and sprinkled with a crunchy topping of broken chickpea noodles. It is a snack almost too easy to like. I found myself inhaling spoonful after spoonful of it, even though my taste buds would’ve preferred something a little less cloying.

Three appetizers at Madras Mantra: (from left) eggplant chat, Bombay bhel and chile bhajiya. CONTRIBUTED BY HENRI HOLLIS

Does that cover most of the appetizers? Not by a long shot. The menu here is even more extensive than those daytime buffets, the upside being that you have more time to consider your choices when seated at a table. The chile bhajiya are a fun option, long, skinny green peppers deep-fried in a thick chickpea batter. Vadai, made from an herb-spiked lentil dough shaped into a doughnut, are fried to a dark brown crunchy density that makes them a perfect vehicle for sopping up the sambar they’re served with. My favorite, though, might be a plate of eggplant fried to a hard crisp and then doused with a heaping of chutneys and yogurt. Most of these options are $5 or $6 apiece. I could happily make a meal of a few of them, though that would mean missing out on the curries and dosas.

Speaking of entrees, I suppose I should mention that Madras Mantra is a vegetarian restaurant. If you’re expecting a sizzling plate of bright red chicken 65, you may be disappointed to not find it on the menu. Yet, I’ve never once even noticed the absence of meat during these meals. Suffice to say, the large breadth of vegetarian cuisine that has been cultivated in South India over centuries is more than enough to satisfy a carnivore such as myself.

If you really want to impress the table, order up the paper masala dosa. The massive, round crepe that arrives will be about 3 feet wide and as thin, as the name suggests, as a sheet of paper. It will be rolled up into a cylinder, so that you can tear off handfuls of the thin bread and scoop up tender bites of masala potatoes or sop up a juicy bite of tomato-rich sambar.

On some occasions, I’ve longed for a stronger punch of heat from the dishes at Madras Mantra. Be careful what you wish for. One night, my dining companion insisted on ordering a bowl of dal palak (a mash of lentils and spinach) extra spicy. What our server returned with looked like many other brown bowls of spiced goodness that Madras Mantra has served me, but it contained a slow-growing chile-based heat that went on to inflame both of our faces to the point that my forehead was dripping sweat by the end of the meal.

I’d say stick with the flavors as the kitchen suggests them. Order the chole bhatura and you’ll be delivered a large platter bearing two deep-fried bhaturas as fluffy and inflated with air as a pair of balloons. The chickpea curry served with them is deep, rich and earthy. I liked the way a sprinkle of red onion and a squeeze of lemon, served on the side, focus the complex blend of aromatic spices into a dazzling bite.

Oh, I could go on. There is so much more. There is a delicate vegetable biryani, each long grain of rice perfectly cooked and mild. There is a thick, heavy pongal, which is something like the South Asian version of grits, punctuated by crunchy peppercorns and cashews. There is even an addictive, sloppy sweet rendition of General Tso’s fried cauliflower hiding on the menu under the name Gobi Manchurian.

How will you ever choose from all of these options? Simple. Just order up the Madras Mantra special thali, and the kitchen will bring you out a polished steel platter bearing a dozen bowls of curry, sambar, chutney, rice, more rice, pickles, a little dessert and a slab of naan. It has all the pleasures of eating at the buffet, with none of the trouble of actually choosing.

MADRAS MANTRA

Overall rating: 2 of 4 stars (very good)

Food: South Indian

Service: friendly and casual

Best dishes: masala idly, paper masala dosai, chole bhatura, eggplant chat, onion spinach pakora

Vegetarian selections: exclusively vegetarian

Price range: $-$$

Credit cards: all major credit cards

Hours: 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Mondays-Sundays

Children: family-friendly

Parking: ample lot parking

MARTA station: Avondale Station with connection on 75 Tucker bus

Reservations: unnecessary

Wheelchair access: yes

Noise level: medium

Patio: no

Takeout: yes

Address, phone: 2179 Lawrenceville Highway, Decatur. 404-636-4400

Website:madrasmantra.com

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