My first taste of Indian food was in graduate school. A good friend of mine introduced me to it in a little Indian restaurant, in an old converted Rax, around the corner from our apartment building. I wasn’t sure what to expect and I certainly didn’t expect to find a new favorite cuisine, one that would continue to surprise and delight my tastebuds for (I’m hoping) the rest of my life.
Ever since then, I’ve enjoyed introducing friends and family to Indian food and to my favorite Indian restaurants – many of them falling in love with it, too. And I love discovering a new favorite Indian restaurant – whether here in my home city or when traveling. How excited was I, then, when my friend Malika introduced me to Madras Chettinaad in Alpharetta!
Owner Narendra Patel previously owned Madras Cafe, which he opened 15 years ago in Decatur (you may remember it at the corner of N. Druid Hills and Lawrenceville Highway). He then owned Bollywood Masala Grill House, also in Decatur, which was listed in the AJC’s Notable Newcomers / Top 50 Atlanta Restaurants in October 2004. After Bollywood Masala, Patel opened Madras Chettinaad, first in Decatur, then moving it to Alpharetta almost two years ago – so close to home and I didn’t know it was there!
Madras Chettinaad is a South Indian restaurant serving both vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes. Most of my Indian food experience has been North Indian cuisine, so I was excited to try new dishes and flavors, and I was more than willing to let our hosts, Narendra and his manager Arun, choose our dishes and showcase their favorites and specialties. If you’ve never visited an Indian restaurant before, here are some suggestions for your first try. (If you’re an Indian food veteran, maybe you’ll just enjoy the photos!)
We started off much like all Indian restaurants, with papadum, crisp lentil wafers served with cilantro and tamarind chutneys. A friend once called them “the chips and salsa of Indian restaurants,” but chips and salsa have nothing on these crisp, flavorful pre-appetizers. Tamarind is one of my favorite flavors – a tantalizing combination of sweet and spicy.
We asked Arun to suggest appetizers, as well as the rest of our meal. Our usual appetizers at Indian restaurants are Vegetable Samosas and Pakoras – we often get a sampler plate so we don’t have to pick just one. Arun “heavily insisted” on the Spinach Pakora ($4) and then also suggested the Chat Samosa ($3). The Spinach Pakora is light, though it’s deep-fried, and despite the batter, you can really taste the flavors of the spinach and onions (unlike some fried foods where all you taste is the “fried”). The Chat Samosa was new to me – like a deconstructed samosa, with the chutneys already mixed in, served cold. It was more than enough to share (we took most of it home) and I can imagine it being a light, refreshing lunch on a hot day.
One of the specialties of Madras Chettinaad is their Dosai, which are crêpes made from rice and lentils that are soaked overnight and then made into crêpe batter and fried on a huge 7-foot griddle. One regular-sized Dosai is large enough to be your entire meal or to share with a couple of people – it was as long as our table, longer than my forearm. What I’m saying is, it was huge. (The lunch and weekend buffets serve smaller-sized ones, but the ones on the menu are this large size.) Dosai are served with sambar, a lentil soup, and two chutneys, a coconut and a tomato, in which to dip the crêpe.
You can get a plain Dosai ($6) with just the sambar and chutneys, or you can try any of more than a dozen different variations, which start out with the plain Dosai stuffed with a variety of fillings. Our Masala Dosai ($7 - below) was stuffed with a spiced potato mixture (similar to what you find in a Vegetable Samosa).
Our main dishes (as if we weren’t almost completely stuffed by then) were also chosen for us by Arun. We had told him that my husband loves lamb (though I don’t eat it), so he suggested the Lamb Saag ($11), and for me, he suggested another house specialty, the Chicken Chettinaad ($10), both of which were served with rice and steaming hot Garlic Naan.
What better way to wash down your meal than with one (or two!) Indian brews? We shared a large bottle of Kingfisher, followed by a large bottle of Taj Mahal.
Though we truly had no room left for dessert (we had two huge doggie bags of our dinner coming home to feed us another night), we had to try the Mango Lassi. This is a favorite of mine, though I seldom have room for one after a huge Indian feast. Though it’s thick and yogurt-based, it’s light and refreshing and a great ending when you want something a little sweet. Want something a little more substantial for dessert? You may also want to try the Kheer (Basmati rice pudding flavored with cardamom and pistachio) or the Kulfi (Indian-style ice cream).
Full disclosure: Madras Chettinaad graciously hosted us for this event and our bill was comped by the house. However, all opinions expressed here are my own.