- Wyatt Williams For the AJC
The shopping center on Cumberland Boulevard where Bollywood Zing is located in Smyrna is not a particularly inspiring place. There are a vacant department store building, an Army recruiting office, and, like every other shopping center in metro Atlanta, a joint to get some hot wings. Depending on your perspective, this may be the last place you expect to find a kitchen run by two young guys putting out fairly inspired vegetarian Indian specialties at budget buffet prices. Or it might be exactly the sort of place where you expect to find that. In either case, here it is.
Bollywood Zing began as a food truck operation, though, from what I’ve gathered, the truck is largely used for catering events these days. I haven’t been able to find it lately at the food truck lots I frequent. But on any given day, chef Anurag Dubey can be found filling the steam tables of the $7.99 buffet on Cumberland Boulevard. The front of the house is run by another young guy who goes by Alekh, though there isn’t much in the way of service here. He’ll show you to a table, bring you a glass of water and a basket of naan, but that’s about it. The buffet is up to you.
That’s a good thing, so long as you know what not to waste your time with. There are two main steam tables, one with vegetarian options and one with meat. Avoid the meat entirely. Sure, the Chicken 65 is as bright red as it is supposed to be, but that brilliant color belies the dull flavor that accompanies it. The chicken tikka masala is as about as buttery and rich as it should be, but the hunks of chicken are inevitably tough and chewy. Depending on the day, you may have the option of lamb or goat, but, really, this is all beside the point.
The real depth of flavor, the kind of focused attention to detail that shows where a kitchen’s inspiration lies, is in the vegetarian dishes here. The chana palak, a traditional combination of chickpeas and spinach in gravy, is not the limp, watery stew that it can sometimes be, but a dense, thick concentration of garam masala spices and satisfying chickpea heft. A dal of yellow lentils will be studded with deep red dried chiles and the subtle heat they convey.
At lunch, you’ll be composing these dishes yourself, so it’s worth planning how you’ll eat. I like to reserve the plate for starchy items: a few white, fluffy idlis (small steamed cakes made from fermented lentils), a pile of long-grain basmati rice, maybe a few dense savory doughnuts and a fried, flaky samosa filled with potatoes and peas. But around the plate, Bollywood Zing offers as many small metal bowls, the perfect vessel for composing an impromptu thali (the Indian equivalent of a lunch platter), as you like.
Fill one with a scoop of vegetable korma, a rich coconut milk stew studded with cashews along with an assortment of toothsome veggies. Fill another with that dense chana palak. Another with that chile-laden yellow dal. But don’t forget the chutneys. Bollywood Zing makes a fine green chutney filled with cilantro and coconut flesh. When you get back with all of this, your table should be spread like a proper thali, little metal bowls ringing around your plate, bright colors dotting the table like a painter’s palette. Your own palate will be in for a treat.
Of course, much of this depends on keeping some expectations low. With only one employee in the front of the house, it’s likely that your water glass may go empty for some time before it is refilled. The drink selection in general is simply lacking. They don’t even serve tea.
I suppose one could go for dinner at Bollywood Zing, where dishes are served a la carte, but these little flaws, the lack of drinks, the slow service, are likely to be magnified. There are a few options that aren’t available from the buffet, like the South Indian specialty of uttapam, a pancake filled with chopped onions and chiles. But you’ll spend more and the highlights will still tend to be the same, well-spiced vegetarian dishes.
I’d much rather drop in at the beginning of lunch, when the hara bhara kabab is still warm. They’re little patties, crispy brown on the outside and green on the inside, flavored with spinach and coriander and the density of paneer. Bollywood Zing keeps a thick, potent hot sauce on the tables that pairs just about perfectly with the kababs. At buffet prices, a plate of these alone is a steal worth visiting for.