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    We arrived early for dinner -- about 5 p.m. -- at Passage to India, and although the restaurant was virtually empty of customers, we still had a sense of the countless people who have enjoyed meals within its four walls. The foyer was studded with framed photographs of celebrity regulars. We spotted one of Shaquille O'Neal, but another photo looked like Julio Iglesias as a famous cricket player.

    For more than a decade, Passage to India has held fast to its reputation for fine Indian dining on International Drive. While it draws its share of locals, tourist business accounts significantly for its success.

    Proprietor Uday Kadam has created a selection of classic Indian dishes that are, as the menu reads, "rich but not fatty, spicy but not hot." We found that to be the case with the appetizer platter ($8.95), which is a reasonably priced way to investigate the spices and textures of Indian cuisine: juicy chicken tikka tenders roasted in spicy yogurt sauce, flaky samosa pastries stuffed with peas and potatoes, crunchy pakora vegetable fritters and the more spicy, deep-fried bhaji onions.

    Vegetarians will have a heyday with more than a dozen vegetable-based dishes. We absolutely loved palak sabji dal ($12.95), a sautéed mixture of spinach and eggplant in a deep, dark, tomato-based sauce. The other half of the menu is represented by chicken, lamb and seafood. All dinners are served with all-you-can-eat helpings of fluffy, oven-baked basmati rice, which is perfumed with hints of cumin, cinnamon and cloves.

    Chicken korma ($15.95) was a creamy, curry dish that was prepared in an extremely mild version; the heat level barely registered. So if you prefer more formidable renditions, be specific with the waiter in advance. Lamb palak ($18.95) was more recommendable with its delicious sauce of ginger and garlic, and accented with sautéed onions and spinach.

    The dining room affords a sense of intimacy, and it is formally appointed with mahogany and ruby-red details that evoke images of Bombay and the days of the British empire. Service was poised and graceful, but not affected. We felt welcomed from the beginning to the end of our dinner. Passage to India is a haven for those who want to explore the nuances of Indian cuisine in an upscale setting.

    It was 8:45 p.m. and the jokes were flying at our table. "You know you're at a restaurant on I-Drive when ... A) You wait an hour for a drink refill. B) You seriously consider going to the restroom for a glass of tap water. C) You actually do this, and the staff doesn't notice.

    Thank God the faucets worked, as my friend said.

    Our group had arrived at New Punjab Indian Restaurant at 7 p.m., and more than 90 minutes later, we were still waiting for our check -- and water refills. The "help wanted" sign out front should have been a tip-off. There was only one waitress in the dining room filled with dozens of customers. We watched as she shifted into high gear and tried in vain to take care of everyone. We couldn't even make eye contact to show our best, most pleading expressions. After dining on curries, hot sauces and peppers, the need for water was more than a nicety -- it was essential.

    We later found out that we just happened to catch the restaurant as it was experiencing a rare fluke, being short-staffed on sudden notice. And that later in the evening, another waitress had arrived to ease the pressure.

    Indian cuisine is so rich and complex, and there is so little of it in Orlando, that I think this I-Drive restaurant remains a strong competitor. A stand-by for Indian food since1988, New Punjab offers an excellent tour of the classics: curries, fried puff breads, chutneys, stewed lentils, tandoor dishes baked in clay ovens and more.

    Filmy curtains obscure the view of the neon-bright, tourist-clogged boulevard outside, and the dulcet strains of sitars float through the softly lit dining area. Its authentic ethnic ambience would be more in line with what you'd expect to find in bohemian Greenwich Village than commercial International Drive.

    We started off with the variety tray ($7.95), which gave a taste of the majors: cracker-crisp papadam bread studded with spicy lentils; bhaji onion fritters and puffy, deep-fried aloo pakora vegetable fritters, enriched with hot spices. Thesamosa pastries were as round and big as tennis balls, stuffed with potatoes and peas -- better yet, order them as a separate appetizer stuffed with chicken ($3.50). The mango chutney ($1.95) was chunky and full-bodied, and we lavished it on the pashwarinan bread ($3.75), sweetened with crushed nuts and raisins.

    A tandoor dish is the litmus test of an Indian restaurant, and Punjab prepares a delicious chicken tikka kebab ($13.95), threaded with gorgeous char-broiled meat, onions, peppers and tomatoes. Another recommendable entree is the superbly creamy "lamb fancy nuts curry" ($14.95), featuring dark lamb meat in a mild, yellow curry sauce with raisins and nuts. All dinners come with unlimited helpings of delicately steamed white rice.

    When we finally recaptured our waitress' attention and got the check, she couldn't have been more gracious and apologetic for the prolonged wait, which went a long way toward smoothing over what was otherwise a satisfying experience.



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