Indian in Orlando

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    It seems like just a few years ago, there were only one or two Indian restaurants in town. Now there are several, though most cater to tourists by locating themselves on International Drive.

    And there, in a strip-mall, is Shamiana, where on a recent Sunday afternoon I found the decor pleasant and unpretentious, with paddle fans, hanging plants and tapestries (although our table was a little grimy).

    I began with sweet lassi ($2), a creamy beverage made of blended mango and yogurt. I've tried lots of versions of this Indian specialty, but this was by far the best I've had anywhere. We split our puri appetizer ($2), a puffed piece of whole wheat bread, lightly fried and served with a sweet chickpea sauce for dipping. Also accompanying the puri was a tasty chutney and a cucumber, tomato and onion salad. All were delicious.

    My companion ordered the chicken korma ($4.95), which was superb, although a bit richer than what we're used to. This version was prepared with a mild, creamy almond sauce with raisins and spices and served on jasmine rice.

    In an effort to be different, I asked for the lamb sheik kabab ($5.95) but was offered a polite apology (they were out of lamb) and a suggestion to try the chicken tikka masala ($4.95) instead. My disappointment ended as soon as the dish arrived. It featured tender chunks of chicken baked in a tandoori oven, then stirred into a smoky tomato sauce with onions, peppers and herbs.

    Both main dishes were served thali-style on large steel platters with an eye-popping variety of side dishes, breads and dipping sauces. (Shamiana's thali platters are excellent lunchtime bargains, with prices varying a couple of bucks depending on whether you want chicken or the pricier shrimp and lamb dishes.) We liked the pappadam (lentil crackers) and the naan (plain bread -- excellent for dipping). However, we were underwhelmed by the "dal of the day" -- in this case, a bland, mushy lentil mixture -- as well as the saffron-colored, uninspiring potatoes. The rice pudding was a welcome, cooling treat after all the spicy food -- with just enough nutmeg to make it interesting.

    And even though we ate a heck of a lot of food, our bill without tip was just $19. Clearly, Shamiana isn't trying to keep up with the neighbors.

    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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