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Thursday, May 15, 2003

Currying flavor

Posted on Thu, May 15, 2003 at 4:00 AM

Most of what we're familiar with as "Indian food" comes from the northern part of the subcontinent. Tandoori, tikkas and yellow curry are wonderful things, but special treats are found to the south and western coast. Indian lobster? You bet.

Reggie D'Souza, who has owned the Northern-themed Far Pavilion restaurant on I-Drive for many years, says he wanted a place "where I could eat the foods I eat at home." And Dakshin (which means "south") is a reflection of his roots in the coastal town of Mangalore. The menu is alive with seafood recipes and tomato-based hot curries with influences of the Portuguese, who first brought hot peppers to India.

I started with the mixed starter platter ($9.95) to sample the goods, and good they were. Crunchy lentil patties, dense and flavorful fish cutlets, and bhonda -- sort of the Indian version of hushpuppies -- complemented pan-fried shrimp. If I'd known the shrimp was that good I'd have ordered more. Suhke tesriya ($8.95) turned out to be a plate of tender mussels cooked with a green coconut chutney for a rich delight.

A side of aloo paratha ($2.95), flat bread stuffed with peas and soft potatoes, makes a perfect accompaniment to the lobster curry ($18.95), with its meat simmered in spicy red-curry gravy and fragrant with anisette. My companion's lamb masala ($12.95), a rich, dark sauce spiced with curry leaves and pepper, was so tender it practically cut itself.

In a nod to northern cuisine, several biryanis appear, and the slow-cooked shrimp and rice casserole I ordered ($14.95) was flavored with a magnificently intense mixture of spices.

The vegetable dishes, like spicy "paneer capsicum" ($11.95) from Bombay (dense Indian cheese cooked with chilis), are too expensive to just sample, so most folks will miss a wonderful experience. Order bhendi sukhe ($10.95), a thick okra dish, and share.

There's also a full nonmeat menu available for dinner, with treats such as dosais -- lentil crepes filled with potato and onion -- and uthappam, which is called "Indian pizza" on the menu but turned out to be a savory rice-flour pancake. Try the tomato version ($7.25), topped with onion and thin flakes of coconut.

The place setting at each table confused me, so a quick lesson might help. On the table is a round copper tray and three bowls. Meat (or vegetables) and sauces go into the bowls for sharing and dipping with chapati or aloo paratha. Spread the rice into the tray, making it easy to pick up with a fork or bread. You'll get smiles from your waiter. And the food will get smiles from you.

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