Twenty years ago there were maybe a dozen or so Indian restaurants in Atlanta, and now that number has exploded as Atlantans embrace the spices, flavors and dishes of the world’s seventh largest country. Not only are Atlantans learning about Indian food, many of Atlanta’s restaurants have received national acclaim, which just increases the interest and quality.
Well, let’s add another outstanding Indian restaurant to the list. Tabla quietly opened earlier this year, but judging by the packed dining room on a Monday night, this Midtown eatery is no longer a secret.
An authentic restaurant with a modern twist, Tabla’s owners Sandeep Kothary and Sandeep Kothary, who is also the executive chef, have brought a contemporary feel to traditional cuisine. They even roast and grind their own spices. It is obvious that the management is serious and proud to present their native country’s dishes is a way that showcases its diversity, complexity and variety. Kothary table hops, explaining dishes, making recommendations, asking patrons if they are enjoying their meal and speaking with guests as if they were old friends. He is truly welcoming you into his home.
Tabla is decorated in cool colors with strings of glass bulbs hanging from the ceiling. The décor lends itself just as much to a business meeting as a dinner among friends or a date (all of which we witness). The atmosphere adds to the beautiful cuisine to follow. While we were pondering the menu, our server brought a plate of popadum and several dipping chutney sauces. He explained that popadum is a thin, crisp disc-shaped Indian food typically based on a seasoned dough made from lentils that are fried or cooked with dry heat. The almost wafer-thin bread and the sauces were the perfect introduction to what was an exciting, delicious and amazing experience.
We started the meal with kurkuri bhindi -- julienne fried okra mixed with red onion and cherry tomatoes; and tandoori shrimp cooked with lime, coriander and roasted garlic. The bhindi may be the best fried okra in town. The beautifully displayed intertwined shrimp initially had a delicate flavor but then packed a hot punch going down. The shrimp certainly is one of the best items and a must order.
Our companion ordered the rack of lamb while we opted for the moilee curry -- a mild shrimp dish with coconut and mustard seed. For those wanting to discover the world of curries, Tabla is the place. It offers tikka masala (tomato and fenugreek sauce); korma (cashew and yogurt-based); vindaloo (spicy Goan style with chili, vinegar and garlic); saag (sauteed spinach with spices); kadai (stir fry with onions and peppers) and rogan josh (lamb flavored with cardamon, cloves and Kashmiri red chilies).
We confess that we didn’t try the more exotic or hot dishes, and the smooth choice of moilee curry was perfect for our less-than-adventurous palates. Even after we ate the generous portion of shrimp, we continued sopping the sauce up with rice and plain naan bread. Naan bread, by the way, is also offered with garlic, bullet, truffle oil and Parmesan cheese, paratha, tandoori roti and roomali roti.
The rack of lamb was similarly successful with the tender meat falling off the bone and swimming in a pool of spices that brought the dish to an exotic and previously unknown level of taste.
Other signature dishes include tandoori chicken, shahi chicken (chicken breast stuffed with spinach in a korma sauce); mint fish; lamb shank served in a red chili curry; short ribs in a tamarind glaze; and stuffed pepper.
For vegetarians, entrees include paneer pasanda cooked in an almond sauce; delhi chole, traditional chickpea curry; aloo gobi, stir-fried cauliflower and potato medley; and achari eggplant, baby eggplant cooked in a spicy red chili gravy.
For dessert we opted for pistachio ice cream and a creme brûlée, but the best was the dessert we didn’t ask for but would certainly order the next time. It’s called gulab jamun, small milk doughnuts in a sweet syrup. They were the perfect ending to a delightful evening.
Saveur magazine recently devoted an entire issue to Indian cuisine, which just reinforces the fact that the many flavors and dishes of India have registered with the mainstream American dining public. Thank goodness. For those of us slowly being initiated into this delectable cuisine, we might need a version of Indian food for Dummies. But lacking that, the best way to learn and experience Indian food would be to go to Tabla — and keep going back — and let the world of Indian food unfold and take you away to an exotic place where everything is delicious.
Mary Welch is a veteran journalist who writes about travel, lifestyle and business. Her work has appeared in publications such as the Atlanta Journal Constitution, The Fulton County Daily Report and Family Vacation Critic