At Desi Spice Indian Cuisine, food looks as pretty as it tastes
STORY: Hope S. Philbrick
PHOTOS: Erik Meadows
My lifelong flavor safari has (so far) reached 34 countries on four continents. My foodie hobby has transformed into a job, and I’ve helped judge multiple culinary and wine competitions (even created a few of them). Yet there are gaps in my culinary knowledge. For this education issue, it seemed appropriate to face one headon: I don’t know much about Indian food.
The best place to get schooled about a cuisine is at an authentic restaurant serving it. Finding an Indian restaurant in Atlanta is easy; choosing just one to showcase in a review is more challenging. Narrowing the lengthy list down to the geographic footprint of 17th South helps but still leaves multiple possibilities. I tasked my husband with polling his coworkers while I surveyed colleagues, surfed online and landed on Desi Spice Indian Cuisine.
A line popped out at me in the “About Us” section of the restaurant’s website: “Check our menu, choose your dish and if you need any suggestion or help in advice in selecting a dish, our staff will be more than happy to explain the preparation and help you select the best dish as per your taste.”
I needed a crash-course in Indian food, and Desi Spice offers itself up as a tutor. Perfect!
Desi Spice Indian Cuisine is not readily visible from the street; it’s in Midtown Promenade in the building behind Trader Joe’s. Its second floor location adds an airy feeling since the main dining room faces a patio, treetops and sky rather than a crowded parking lot.
Stepping into the dining room feels like crashing a party where you don’t know anybody, but suddenly a guy is pouring water into your glass and acting like, of course, you were invited. Multiple TVs hang high on the walls, all tuned to Bollywood music videos, the majority of which depict wedding dances where everyone on camera is smiling and gyrating in bright, flowy clothes. An upbeat rhythm permeates the dining room. The cozy collection of artsy chairs sort of screams “India” even though the little bells hanging along their backs don’t actually chime.
Pleasant whiffs tinged with spice drift in the air and cloud around plates whisked to tables from the kitchen. Every glass, every plate, pops with vibrant hues. The dishes and the words to describe them on the menu may be unfamiliar, but the appearance of the food and drinks is as appealing as a box of brand new neon Crayolas: You can’t help but want to dig in.
“I don’t know anything about Indian food,” I boldly admitted to the server on the initial visit. “What do you recommend?”
He waved to colleagues who were perhaps better versed in English to assist. Soon owner Tanbir Ahmed stepped in to answer all my and my husband’s questions, the main one being, “What should we order if we don’t know what to order?” He steered us to the best sellers.
Chicken Tikka Masala is the restaurant’s most popular dish by a longshot: “Ninety percent of people order it,” says Ahmed. “People love it.”
The dish is a supersonic hot pink—paprika and saffron contribute to the hue. Chunks of tender chicken are puddled in a mildly spicy sauce the consistency of yogurt. Ahmed says the recipe originally included almonds, but, since so many guests claimed allergies, the chefs tweaked the recipe that now includes coconut milk instead.
Lamb curry is the second-most popular entrée. It’s spiced with chiles, turmeric, coriander, cumin and cinnamon, plus onion, ginger and garlic. The mild dish is orange and less saucy than a Thai curry, but as lip-licking good.
Naan is also popular, probably because it’s arguably the best way to sop up every drop of whatever else you order. Naan is unleavened white flat bread that’s hand-rolled and baked in a Tandoori clay oven until it puffs up and picks up a little char. It’s like naked pizza dough, without yeast. Consider Naan a must-order. I favor plain; you might prefer garlic, onion, green chile or another flavor.
On our next visit, we were greeted like longtime friends. We ordered the mixed tandoori platter to sample five different items: chicken tikka, paneer (cheese) tandoori, lamb boti kabab, salmon tandoori and shrimp tandoori. All are marinated in sauce made with yogurt, tomato, lemon and herbs, then grilled on skewers over charcoal. The platter of meat, mixed bell peppers and onions comes out sizzling like fajitas and is even garnished with cilantro and a wedge of lime, but the meats are brightly colored from their marinade and carry interesting layers of flavor.
Vegetable samosa is a puff pastry appetizer filled with potatoes, peas, carrots, herbs and five mild spices including cardamom. Vegetable Niramish is a shareable side of mixed veggies tinged orange by mild spice including turmeric and tamarind. Bhindi Bjaji is okra sautéed with ginger, garlic, tomatoes, onions and spices. Mango Lassi is an orange drink so bright an actual orange might envy its hue and so yummy it could be dessert.
My biggest take-away from Desi Spice about North Indian cuisine is this: Spicy consistently means flavorful, not hot. Don’t be afraid to try whatever sounds interesting.
Desi Spice has been around for 14 years, though Ahmed purchased the restaurant in January 2017. He says that since buying it, business has doubled and continues to grow, though there are slow times in summer. Ahmed, who is originally from Bangladesh and has lived in Atlanta for about 12 years, previously worked at other restaurants, but Desi Spice is the first he owns. A total of six chefs work in the kitchen, some of whom are his brothers.
Ahmed’s favorite thing about owning a restaurant is serving different people on a daily basis. “I try to do the best service I can,” he says. “Every day, I’m learning something from our guests.” Sometimes, he also teaches people like me about Indian food.
DESI SPICE INDIAN CUISINE
931 Monroe Dr., Suite C 202, 30308
Recommended: Mango lassi beverage ($4); chicken tikka masala ($14); lamb curry ($15); paneer tandoori ($15); naan bread ($3).
Bottom Line: Desi Spice serves quality traditional North Indian fare at competitive prices in a casual, welcoming setting. Dine in the cozy themed dining room or on the second-story outdoor patio, or enjoy free delivery within a 3-mile radius of the restaurant.
What is your favorite dish on the menu? I love both lamb and goat, but I have lamb curry most of the time.
Besides Indian, what’s your favorite food? I love American steak, any cut.
After hearing Bollywood music in your restaurant all day, does it play in your dreams? No. Personally, I don’t like it for everyday, but we’re playing it for our customers.