Newly opened Bollywood Masala obviously intends to transport its customers to the magic of movies from the other side of the world. Posters and collages cover every corner. A mounted flat-screen TV broadcasts continuous films of pouty women and swarthy men flirting furiously before they break into tightly choreographed dance with 20 of their best friends. A band of starry wallpaper around the boxy dining room evokes a galaxy far, far away.
Am I transported? Not really. I feel more like I'm browsing at an Indian video store.
Enchantment with the surroundings would probably come easier were I not so confounded by the concept of the menu here. This was a chance for a successful restaurateur to introduce Atlanta to another new vista of Indian cuisine. It didn't happen.
Owner Narendra Patel also operates the deservedly popular Madras Saravana Bhavan. In fact, they're in the same shopping center, though Bollywood Masala resides in the strip's forlorn corner all by its lonesome. When Madras Saravana Bhavan opened several years ago, it eclipsed nearby Udipi Cafe as the city's paradigm of excellent South Indian vegetarian cuisine. Since then, the stretch of Decatur around Lawrenceville Highway has become glutted with Indian restaurants, many of them serving the same cuisine with few variations.
There are exceptions, like Bamboo Garden's Chinese-Indian synthesis, or South Indian Cafe, which offers a couple of fish dishes worth investigating. But all in all? I love hubcap-sized dosa crepes stuffed with spiced potatoes as much as the next guy, but the food has come to taste mighty similar from place to place.
Bollywood Masala breaks from the neighborhood trend and serves lots of meat and seafood. Here's the frustration: The kitchen could have chosen to explore dishes from the rich traditions of those regions of India that actually cook meat and seafood. Instead, it mostly resorts to serving the same tired concoctions served at Indian restaurants everywhere. You have to root diligently to find the interesting stuff.
And you need to look beyond the first page of the menu to find it. The appetizers are largely underwhelming. Tiny samosa triangles appear fetching on the plate, like Indian hors d'oeuvres, but don't have enough lentil stuffing for a solid, toothy bite. Mutton pasanda turns out to be lifeless, flattened cutlets of lamb without any adornment to liven them up. Cubes of salmon marinated in yogurt are no match for the tandoor oven, which overcooks them to chewy blocks.
The only starter that grabs my attention is bhel, the fried noodle street snack that Madras Saravana Bhavan executes with such finesse. (Take that as advice: If you see something here that you've enjoyed at MSB, chances are high it's a standout at Bollywood as well.) The noodles are tossed with peanuts for a nod to Chinese cuisine. They teeter wonderfully between crispy-crunchy and soggy in the way of cereal when you're three-quarters through the bowl.
I'm hopeful when I spy chettinad curries. Since the closing of Ruchi, a stellar non-vegetarian South Indian restaurant in Alpharetta that broached new territory for this town, I've been on the lookout for those heady, complex dishes from the state of Tamil Nadu. Sadly, Bollywood's chettinads are muddy and one-dimensional, with none of the fruity, coconut-laced notes like those at Ruchi.
Occasionally, the kitchen plops chunks of meat into classic vegetarian dishes and labels it "fusion." Chole bhatura is a typical combination of saucy chickpea curry with a plate of voluminous fried bread to scoop up the sauce in puffy fistfuls. They've added chicken to the curry at Bollywood Masala and, well ... why? The chicken gets lost among the chickpeas and adds nothing in terms of flavor or texture.
And yet, the chick-in-the-mix concept works in other places. Chopped, red-tinged chicken tikka is cooked into uttapam, a large lentil and rice flour pancake that comes out like a slightly moist pizza. You slather a slice of uttapam with a layer of tomatoey, creamy gravy and some cilantro-laden coconut chutney. It's a combination that grants primal comfort.
If you're in the mood for curry and need some sort of animal protein to be happy, best to stick with shrimp -- particularly the karikudi shrimp in a spiced caramelized onion sauce. Otherwise, go veggie. It's what these folks know best. The kadai bindhi masala exhibits all the skilled history of Indian vegetarian cuisine: Okra is fried separately so it avoids any sliminess, yet still melds soulfully with its oniony tomato-based sauce.
And the Bollywood special curry is a welcome alternative to ubiquitous saag paneer. The spiced creamed spinach and the paneer cheese are served individually, and the paneer has been scrambled to resemble the texture of eggs. Just the option of eating the ingredients together or separately allows you to appreciate these preparations in a new light.
If you're an avid Indian adventurer, it's worth a trip to check out these subtle treats. Overall, though, given the rapid evolution of Indian restaurants in this town during the last decade, it's time for a sharp, provocative restaurateur to give the public freshly made chutneys, Keralan seafood stews and authentic, carefully cooked curries. Not theme restaurants.