These days I try to eat on the vegetarian side of the spectrum when I know dinner will bring the carnivorous smorgasbord of a backyard barbecue. Lucky for me, I live central to many Indian restaurants and can keep my veggie intake both interesting and exotic by lunching on an Indian thali.
If you aren’t familiar with this style of dining, a thali (Hindi for plate) is a shiny stainless steel platter packed with small bowls filled with various vegetables and grain-based items. A mound of rice and some bread are at the center, which many Indians use to scoop up the kaleidoscope of colorful curries in lieu of a fork or spoon. Asha Gomez, chef/owner of newcomer Cardamom Hill emailed that she considers thali “a staple from the North to the South, East to West of India.”
Every state and region has some variation of a thali. They usually consist of a starch or two, two to three vegetables, a yogurt dish in some form and a dessert. In some regions where meat or seafood is central to the cuisine ( e.g., Kerala), there would be the option of a meat or seafood dish included in the thali. Gomez serves two types of thali — a vegetarian and meat option — at her popular restaurant during lunch service. But there are numerous other restaurants where you can explore different regions, flavors and tastes all over Atlanta.
Vatica Indian Vegetarian Cuisine has been a favorite among thali-seeking Atlantans for many years because of its superior hospitality and quality. Vatica specializes in Gujarati thali, but tends to use less fat in its cooking, making it a healthier option among its compatriots. There’s a certain blissful mindlessness to eating here because thali is the only thing on the menu. After bringing a pitcher of ice water and a chilly glass, the genial and always chatty owner rushes off to place your order. What today’s thali holds is a surprise until the shimmering silver platter painted with a rainbow of colors reaches your table. Nibble on a little tender cauliflower tinted sunflower yellow with turmeric. Cool the heat of the piquant vegetable soup with a dollop of the yogurt mixed with grated cucumber — it’s fun to spoon over the fluffy basmati rice, too. It all may sound a tad too dainty, but for $8.99, you can eat as much as you like so don’t be shy to ask for refills when the server makes her rounds with the cart.
Vatica: Monday—Sunday. 11 a.m.-3 p.m. and 5-9 p.m. 1475 Terrell Mill Road. Marietta, 30067. 770-955-3740. $
Thali in Decatur, another Gujarati-style restaurant, specializes in — you guessed it — thali. Located down a corridor parallel to the Patel Brothers megastore in Atlanta’s unofficial little India, Thali serves a gut-busting buffet style thali during lunch for $6.99. All the dishes are laid out in steam tables so you can mix and match to create a plate customized to your tastes.
The centerpiece of the buffet is an enormous bubbling pan of brick red pav bhaji (a highly spiced potato curry) surrounded by buttered rolls, neat lines of chopped cilantro, onions and lime wedges. It’s kind of, as a friend described it, India’s vegetarian answer to the sloppy Joe. After you are seated, a server will bring you a small plate of buttery and hot paratha and puffed puri bread. If your appetite is a little larger and more adventurous, ask for the restaurant’s 3-course thali meal ($14.99), something that’s seemingly done nowhere else in town.
The feast starts with a handful of carb-heavy fried and steamed goodies such as a dhokla, a yellow steamed gram flour cake that’s studded with ebony mustard seeds. The next course is the star of the show: an array of vegetable and legume curries such as a slightly sweet dal (lentil stew) that’s similar in taste and texture to baked beans — with an Guajarti twist. The meal finishes with a special khichdi (rice cooked down with lentils) that’s served with tangy khadi (a hot yogurt curry), and some ethereal basmati rice. Should you have any room after this gluttonous undertaking, Thali also sells an assortment of savory snacks and sweets.
Thali: Tuesday — Sunday, 11:30 a.m. — 9:30 p.m. 1709 Church St., Decatur, 30033. 678-705-1290. $
Chat Patti is a unique restaurant due to its specialization in chat or street food — think tapas with an Indian twist — that touches on North Indian, South Indian and Guajarti methods of preparation. Chat Patti serves some of the most colorful Indian food in Atlanta, but the plethora of choices is almost overwhelming. The restaurant’s daily thali plate is a great compromise because you can taste a little bit of everything. Each thali comes with the standard mix of curries, a yogurt-based dish, a sweet, rice, a little spicy bright red vegetable soup, etc. The bonus that make Chat Patti one of my favorite thali lunches in town is the small serving of papdi chat that comes with your meal. Fried golden flour crisps akin to tortilla chips are topped with smooth potato, split yellow beans, spicy lime green sauce, brown tamarind and bright white yogurt. The combination offers every sensation a person could want in one dish: sweet, sour, spicy, salty, crunchy, creamy, yum. It’s like souped-up stoner food with an exotic twist.
Chat Patti: Tuesday-Friday, 11:30a.m.-9p.m. Saturday-Sunday, noon-9 p.m. 1594 Woodcliff Drive. Atlanta, 30329. 404-633-5595. $
While a meal of thali is a good way to explore Indian cuisine and load up on vegetables, it has some mental benefits as well. You don’t need to make any decisions — a welcome change during or after a taxing day at the office. All you need to do is sit down and ask for a thali. Since everything is already prepared, your food is delivered within moments — instant gratification at its finest.