The service at Madras Woodlands (2201 Lawrenceville Highway, 404-248-9333) is achingly slow. My friend and I, who have both traveled to India, joke that waiting for our order feels just like being there. Bursts of people — mostly office workers on their lunch breaks — enter the restaurant and sit down, only to jump back up in an instant to hit the expansive buffet, a better option than ordering from the menu if you're pressed for time. On this visit (and my next) I forgo the buffet because the menu, which reads like a greatest hits of all Indian sub-cuisines, is just too enticing to pass up. There is something to be said for a place where everyone, carnivore and vegetarian alike, can find something they want.
There's a large selection of chaat (Indian snack food) items to choose from and all of the dishes I've sampled have been well-executed. A towering bowl of bhel puri (puffed rice with chopped tomatoes, raw yellow onion and cilantro) is dressed with a tangy tamarind dressing that slightly wilts each football-shaped morsel without making it soggy. The brightness of the sauce and chopped raw produce prevent the dish from feeling too heavy. Medhu vadal look like doughnuts, but these deceptive circles of fried fun aren't anything like their sweet cousins. They're savory, lentil-based crunch monsters, but still airy and almost creamy on the inside. The dish comes with a light lentil stew for dipping that's reminiscent of your mom's vegetable soup.
Vegetable curries hold loads of promise, especially the avial and palak paneer. The avial, a yogurt- and coconut-based curry, is cooked down until the mixture resembles boiled milk studded with tiny curds coating the batons of vegetables. It arrives with a tidy bowl of plain rice to cut the curry's inherently mild sourness. Palak paneer — India's answer to creamed spinach — is highly spiced with a seductive undercurrent of fried mustard leaves. Smooth, square hunks of firm cheese (paneer) hold their shape, but give way to a smooth center, which, untouched by the spice of the spinach, provides a pleasant contrast to the rest of the dish.
Those seeking a little taste of everything need look no further than Madras' special meat thali (a silver platter crowded with different vessels of food), which presents an ever-changing assortment of protein preparations served with a crisp pappadum, rice and a little something sweet. When pressed for the secret behind the tenderness of the Lamb Varuval, the young executive said meat tenderizer was his secret. A little magic might be lost in that knowledge, but there's no denying that the fork–tender hunks of lamb covered in sticky tomato and onion sauce satisfy.
While a meal at Madras may be slow by our hurried American standards, there's authenticity in the relaxed pace of the place. Instead of insisting it jibe with our more rushed energy, relax and let the warmth and flavor of the dishes wash over you.