Thursday, September 5, 2002

Masala magic

Posted on Thu, Sep 5, 2002 at 4:00 AM

Poor neglected Dr. Phillips Boulevard. With all the hoopla about restaurants on Sand Lake Road, it's easy to forget about the dining spots just around the corner, even though the Dr. Phillips Marketplace is full of cozy Italian, Japanese and deli eateries, not to mention the popular Morton's and Chatham's Place locations.

So we'll train the spotlight on Spice Cafe -- "cafe" here standing for "cafeteria," meaning no table service. While customers may choose from an extensive menu, most folks just go to the front counter and pick from items behind the plastic barrier. The small storefront operation isn't very different from the Out of Hand Burrito Stand it replaced, the aroma of curry and coriander now substituting for taco sauce and cilantro. One of my favorite Indian restaurants is in the middle of a shopping mall in New York, and I enjoyed the same sense of abundance at Spice Cafe as well as the freedom to just point and get anything I want.

Coincidentally, owner Sunil Puri came to Orlando from Manhattan, where he owned four restaurants. He has a "Have you had that ... try this ... you MUST eat this" New York attitude that makes you feel like you're visiting an uncle who runs the place.

We queued up and pointed, securing generous-sized plates of goodies. Right behind the counter is a big metal, clay-lined box where tandoori dishes are cooked, and I'll stir up a debate by saying this might be the best tandoori chicken I've had in town. The process is a complicated one, merging barbecue and roasting. To cook chicken so moist without being limp, so firm without going dry and tasteless, is an art. They even turn out paneer tikka, a dense marinated cheese that picks up the spicy, smoky flavor that's perfect for the meatless among us ($6.95).

The chicken tikka masala ($7.95) -- boneless breast pieces in creamy, seasoned tomato sauce -- is superb. "Masala" means a blend of spices, and this blend is conservatively spicy and perfumed with cardamom. Next, it's back to the counter for lamb rogan josh, tender chunks of meat in a dark garlic and curry sauce.

The platters ($7.95) include two side dishes, and I can especially recommend saag paneer, cubed cheese surrounded by creamy spinach with a slightly bitter taste that offsets the sweetness of the accompanying basmati rice.

I didn't get to sample the pilaf-like biriyanis or a fiery vindaloo, but I'm told the business will be expanding to I-Drive, with a "fine dining" Spice Cafe opening in November. Look forward to it.


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