When I stepped inside for a recent meal at Blue India, it seemed to be more or less like many other restaurants I’ve encountered at the ground floor of a condo tower in Midtown Atlanta.
Near the entrance was a short bar with curved edges, big enough for a few friends to grab drinks but quiet enough for a working lunch. Hanging from the ceiling were a handful of Edison bulbs, those ubiquitous glowing filaments. The seating was ample and comfortable, composed mostly of long, dark tufted leather banquettes. I felt like I’d been in this restaurant a half-dozen times before, even though this was my first visit. In fact, it wasn’t until the host led me to a seat that I noticed something different.
The kitchen at Blue India is not exactly open, but one wall has been replaced by a large pane of glass. Behind that glass, two very attractive tandoor ovens have been installed. Not familiar with a tandoor? This style of oven sits up like a clay pot on the ground. The blazing heat is at the bottom, and the opening is a tapered hole at the top. The clay sides are insulated and thick. At Blue India, the tandoors have been decorated with a glossy tile finish that gives them the appearance of glittering beehives.
And so, at that first meal, I spent a few minutes perusing the menu’s options but mostly watching a cook do his work quickly, pushing things into and pulling them out of these blazing hot ovens. A fair portion of Blue India’s menu is devoted to dishes cooked in the clay ovens, and the options include meat, meat and more meat. More than any Indian restaurant I can think of in the Atlanta area, Blue India is devoted to the pleasures of a carnivore.
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Watch that window into the kitchen for a little while and no doubt you’ll see the cook carefully packing an aggressively seasoned mix of ground lamb shoulder around a thick skewer and pointing it deep into the oven. Pulled back out, this seekh kebab will emerge smoky and spicy. It is like a long, slightly dried-out sausage with a hollow center.
There is, of course, the classic tandoori chicken. The meat is rubbed with paprika until it turns the color of a Santa Claus hat and seared until the edges are blackened and crispy.
Unlike the fine mince of lamb shoulder for the seekh kebab, the lamb boti kebab is composed of thick, marinated chunks of shoulder that stay juicy in the oven but never reach the flavor that the seekh kebab carries.
This litany of familiar meats is punctuated by a few surprises. The tandoori king prawns, served head on and shell-peeled, are as large and grand as the name suggests. The fierce heat of the tandoor, though, leaves them a little more cooked and less tender than ideal.
All of these options, and more, can be ordered individually or in a massive combination platter that includes chicken, both styles of lamb kebab, and the king prawns. Either way, the meat will be delivered on a sizzling flat skillet with a steaming layer of shredded cabbage and peppers and a choice of creamy, cooling raita.
For entrees that run about $20, this is a somewhat underwhelming presentation. The meats that emerge from those tandoor ovens are flavorful and well-cooked, but they aren’t put to clever use. The cabbage is soggy and bland. The raita is decidedly average. I longed for, say, the punch of a smart chutney or, at the very least, a dish composed a bit more thoughtfully than, say, the presentation of Tex-Mex fajitas.
Elsewhere on the menu, the kitchen does exhibit some more ambitious style. I was pleasantly surprised by the crispy bhindi chaat recommended by a server one night. He brought out a bird’s nest of thinly sliced okra fried to a delicate crisp and seasoned with a ginger-inflected masala. Those slivers of okra held up, as crunchy as chips, for quite a while as a friend and I talked and munched on them between sips of beer.
The sloppy keema sliders are made from a flavorfully sweet mince of lamb meat and a topping of shredded English cheese. It is an unexpected, nontraditional treat, but the soft bun of the slider is too thick and the meat isn’t piled nearly high enough to qualify as sloppy.
These kinds of missteps aside, Blue India does offer a few classic, fine curries that hit the spot. The tikka masala, which can be prepared with your choice of chicken, lamb, shrimp or paneer, is as brightly red as that Santa Claus-colored tandoori chicken. Smeared in the crispy folds of naan, just pulled from the tandoor, it is a rich pleasure redolent with coconut milk.
Even better, though, is the deeply spiced, dark short rib masala. This bowl of tender, braised beef is certainly not common in India, where cattle slaughter is still quite the controversial subject in much of the country. Yet, the spices and meat, served as they are here in a thick, earthy combination, seem to be quite suited to one another. It is a welcome, meaty surprise.
11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and 5-10 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays; 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and 5-11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 12:30-2:30 p.m. and 5-10 p.m. Sundays. 933 Peachtree St., Atlanta. 404-963-5775, blueindiaatlanta.com.
Recommended dishes: Seekh kebab, tikka masala, short rib masala.