Indian in Orlando with Kid Friendly

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    Although we tend to think of "Indian" as one cuisine, there are many cultures within that country, and diets differ dramatically. In general, the food of Southern India is fragrant with curry leaves, coconuts and tamarind. In the North, cream and yogurt are common ingredients and the predominant spice is garam masala, a mixture based on cardamom, clove, black pepper and cumin.

    Serving Northern-style cuisine is just what Amit Kumar and partner Joy Kakkanad were after when they opened Aashirwad (meaning "blessing") last November on the south side of Orlando. And although that is not a part of town hungering for an Indian restaurant, the owners wanted to set themselves apart by keeping the cost affordable.

    This is certainly the case at lunch, when Aashirwad serves a tasty, if depleted at times, buffet for only $6.95. Every day, the buffet is stocked with favorites such as chicken tikka masala, tandoori chicken, curry and rice. They also have salad and a rotating array of vegetarian items that make this buffet well worth the price of admission. But it's necessary to exercise patience when eating here – service is slow, and they don't always keep the buffet completely stocked. My second trip to the mother lode was fraught with empty chafing dishes (in one there were three florets of cauliflower) and puddles of spilled curry sauce. Eventually we were waited on, and eventually the buffet was restocked. Even though this wasn't a fast lunch, I would happily recommend it for the frugal and hungry.

    The dinner experience at Aashirwad is more suggestive of the basic hospitality background studied by Kumar and Kakkanad in hotel/restaurant management school in India: They keep the lights low, the music medium and the service high. Still, the restaurant is in a strip mall on the corner of International Drive and Kirkman Road, and the dining room itself is nothing special, just a collection of booths and tables and Indian-inspired wall hangings.

    We started our meal with aromatic vegetable samosas ($3.50), delicate and flaky pastry snugly enfolding a mixture of potatoes and peas. Most of the vegetables at Aashirwad seemed slightly abused, as if they were overcooked or kept around too long, and the starchy-tasting veggies in the samosas were no exception.

    Both the tandoori chicken ($11.95) and the tandoori mixed grill ($15.95) were fabulously flavorful and rich with the characteristic charred smokiness of the signature clay oven. The lamb that comes as part of the mix was succulent and moist, but the morsels of chicken were on the dry side. A nice element of surprise was the addition of grilled paneer (Indian-style cottage cheese); the smooth creaminess of the cheese and the spiciness of the seasonings blended quite beautifully.

    I was disappointed with Aashirwad's version of palak paneer ($9.45), creamy spinach with cubes of Indian cheese. The spinach lacked the usual creaminess and tasted flat; the cheese – though very tasty itself – kind of hung in suspension and seemed out of place.

    Many things we tasted were good but were shy of being great. The cucumber and yogurt condiment, raita ($1.95), didn't burst with flavor; the chickpea crackers with cumin seeds, pappadam (complimentary), were slightly greasy; the lentils with tomatoes and onions, tadka dal ($8.95), had a watery quality. But the tandoor-baked bread, naan ($1.50) was spectacular: springy and soft in the center, yet crisp and smoky on the outside where it melded with the heat of the clay oven.

    I have a feeling this restaurant hasn't quite hit its stride yet. Until then, I'll go back just for the naan.

    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.

    I'll be frank. When I first learned that India Palace was located in a strip-mall in the middle of Tourist World, I sighed deeply and thought, "Do I gotta?"

    Let me tell you, I'll be making the trip frequently.

    It's not that the place is, well, a palace. But it is immaculate and attractive: a large room painted soft pink; pink table linen; silk flowers; lovely brass chandeliers; glittery Indian prints on the walls; quiet Indian music in the background.

    My dining companion and I began our meal by perusing a mouthwatering selection of eight Indian breads ($1.25-$3.95). We sampled a delicious chapati ($1.25), which is thin and roasted, and aloo paratha ($3.25) -- a grilled version that's stuffed with delicately spiced potatoes.

    The eight-item appetizer selection was ample and varied and ranged from papadam ($1) -- thin bean wafers -- to Madras fried shrimp ($7.95). I went with the vegetable samosa ($2.50). These crisply prepared patties, stuffed with potatoes and peas and a touch of spices, were delicious, as was the onion bhaji, vegetable fritters that combine onions, green peppers, potatoes and spinach.

    The gosht section of the menu ($10.25-$11.95), eight beef or lamb options, includes gosht rogan josh, in which the meat is cooked with cream, fresh tomato sauce, onions, green peppers and spices. For chicken (murgh) lovers there's everything from murgh curry ($9.95) -- a straightforward, boneless curried chicken -- to the Madras-style murgh ($10.95), which simmers the chicken with fresh tomatoes and special spices. My companion gave raves to his jeera chicken ($10.95) with butter, cumin seed, garlic, ginger, onion and green pepper.

    And there are tandoori choices ($9.95-$18.95) cooked in the traditional Indian clay oven and a dozen vegetarian dishes ($7.95-$8.95), all featuring the exotic spices for which Indian cuisine is famous. I found the eggplant bhartha delectable, the vegetable simmered and blended with spices. Equally tasty was the aloo gobhi, which featured cauliflower, potatoes and green peas, and the mushroom bhaji, a spicy concoction of 'shrooms, green peppers, onions and tomatoes.

    I'd drive a lot farther than the Palace's Buena Vista location to partake of its dishes. The first bite made a Himalayan trek seem reasonable.

    As we sauntered into our friends' kitchen, in anticipation of a delicious home-cooked meal, we were handed glasses of a refreshing sparkling wine that we downed while watching the making of the feast. These friends are the most adventurous and skillful at this very task. I couldn't help but comment on the smell of spices that filled the kitchen, and when handed the cookbook from which our meal was inspired, I found there were no less than 25 ingredients required, most of them exotic spices and hard to find ingredients.

    "Where can you get annatto?" I asked. "And tamarind pulp?"

    Our host winked: A cook's secret was about to be revealed.

    "India Spice House," she whispered.

    India is so rich with spice that almost all other cultures have incorporated Indian varieties into their cuisine. Just about any seasoning called for in a recipe can be purchased on the shelves of an Indian market – usually at a great price.

    India Spice House is located in a south Orlando K-mart shopping center. The messy storefront is plastered with product printouts and hand-written specials; inside it is neat and perfumed with exotic ingredients. With only three aisles, this store is packed with wondrous surprises. All of the ingredients for a Moroccan dish I wanted to make were available in abundance: Turkish pistachios, orange flower water, cumin, coriander and mint. There were also exciting new things to try: A delightful jar of lime relish and mace, which totally captivated me with its spicy-sweet smell and turned out to be the outer hull of the nutmeg fruit. And safetida, an alluring powder that was both musky and fruity, is a crucial ingredient in Indian vegetarian cooking and comes from a hybrid of the fennel plant. I picked up some prepared Indian food as well as some frozen paneer cheese that mixed nicely with a ready-made curry for a quick weeknight meal. There's something for everyone.

    Chief among my Orlando restaurant crushes has been Woodlands, the vegetarian Indian restaurant on South OBT. It was the only alternative I knew to fighting the tourist hordes down on I-Drive when I need a masala fix. The atmosphere falls somewhere between fancy and casual ' no need to dress up, but you won't be chasing your chickpeas around the plate with a plastic fork, either. The fact that Woodlands is purely vegetarian is a big plus, too: I'm not, but my usual dining partner is, and restaurants that serve meat sometimes get slapdash with the veggie dishes. Little did I know that there's been a gem twinkling away just around the corner from Woodlands all along.

    In fact, Khasiyat has been open longer than Woodlands, according to owner Bhanu Chavda. Hidden away on Lancaster Road, a few blocks west of Orange Blossom Trail, Khasiyat is stuck between a Mexican market and an Indian music/DVD store. If you didn't know it was there, you'd never run across it. Bigger cities than ours don't have two excellent vegetarian Indian restaurants to choose from ' we should consider ourselves incredibly lucky.

    Khasiyat is decidedly casual. Food is served on styrofoam dishes and eaten with plastic cutlery; you order and pay at the counter. The room is spacious but very plain, dominated by an enormous flat-screen TV. Satellite service supplies Bollywood musicals in a steady, mesmerizing stream. (Even with the sound turned down ' or perhaps because the sound was turned down ' we were enthralled.) They offer an inexpensive buffet of Northern Indian specialties and three different Southern Indian thalis (sampler plates), but the real strength of the menu is the vast assortment of snacks. Fully two-thirds of the menu is devoted to appetizers and 'bites.â?�

    Khasiyat is decidedly casual. Food is served on styrofoam dishes and eaten with plastic cutlery; you order and pay at the counter. The room is spacious but very plain, dominated by an enormous flat-screen TV. Satellite service supplies Bollywood musicals in a steady, mesmerizing stream. (Even with the sound turned down ' or perhaps because the sound was turned down ' we were enthralled.) They offer an inexpensive buffet of Northern Indian specialties and three different Southern Indian thalis (sampler plates), but the real strength of the menu is the vast assortment of snacks. Fully two-thirds of the menu is devoted to appetizers and 'bites.â?�

    I vaguely remembered OW's resident expert on all things Indian, Jason Ferguson, waxing rhapsodic over a street food called bhel puri. I spotted it on the 'bitesâ?� section of the menu, surrounded by several other similar nibbles, and we decided to give it a try ($3.99). After a brief misunderstanding ' we almost got a poori (puffed flatbread) instead ' a bowl of what looked like broken ramen noodles and Kix cereal was placed in front of us. One bite, though, and we were hooked. The mixture of puffed wheat, sev (Indian noodles) and tiny diced potatoes and onions, brightened up with fresh cilantro leaves and a hint of chili, was a perfect balance of crunchy, soft, salty and spicy. Absorbed as we were in trying to untangle the plot of the muted musical, if they had put a bathtub full of this stuff in front of us, we probably would have finished it.

    I vaguely remembered OW's resident expert on all things Indian, Jason Ferguson, waxing rhapsodic over a street food called bhel puri. I spotted it on the 'bitesâ?� section of the menu, surrounded by several other similar nibbles, and we decided to give it a try ($3.99). After a brief misunderstanding ' we almost got a poori (puffed flatbread) instead ' a bowl of what looked like broken ramen noodles and Kix cereal was placed in front of us. One bite, though, and we were hooked. The mixture of puffed wheat, sev (Indian noodles) and tiny diced potatoes and onions, brightened up with fresh cilantro leaves and a hint of chili, was a perfect balance of crunchy, soft, salty and spicy. Absorbed as we were in trying to untangle the plot of the muted musical, if they had put a bathtub full of this stuff in front of us, we probably would have finished it.

    The other big hit was the dosa we ordered. Dosai, if you haven't tried them, are huge, paper-thin savory pancakes, sometimes filled. And when I say huge, I mean huge ' our masala dosa ($4.49) was at least 18 inches across, and we ordered the regular, not the 'largeâ?� ($5.99) or the 'oversizedâ?� ($6.99). Because they're fried on the grill, sometimes dosai are greasy ' in the most delicious way, of course ' but this was crisp, not at all oily. The potato-and-onion filling squished pleasingly under the crackly wrapper, accompanied by heavenly coconut chutney.

    I went in knowing that I had to try the buffet ($5.99), because I felt obligated to try the most commonly ordered dishes. The spread satisfied: rice, dal, four curries (the sag paneer was especially good, with bursting kernels of fresh corn) and several sweets. But, tasty as it was, I'll stick to the dosai and 'bitesâ?� next time. I think I have a new Sunday-afternoon ritual: bhel puri and Bollywood.

    It's an odd latitude to find such an authentic touch of India in the little shopping plaza just west of the I-4/436 bridge. But, nestled in the middle of Altamonte Springs' commercial clutter, Kohinoor offers just that.

    In a word, "serene" most aptly describes the ambience of this establishment, from the plants placed throughout a cooling, deep green and white interior, to the unobtrusive strains of music, to the quiet voices of the staff.

    A menu offering an extensive choice starts with soups ($2.50). My vegetable soup, actually a kind of puree, liberally seasoned, was hot, smooth and tasty; my dining companion found the lentil soup a spicy treat.

    Eight appetizers ($1-$7.95) cover the gamut from papadam, a kind of thin bean wafer, to chicken tikka -- boneless, marinated chicken pieces cooked in a clay oven -- to my choice, the vegetable samosa, which featured two crisp, yummy patties of potatoes and peas with a light touch of Indian spices. My companion enjoyed a mixed pakora of onions, green pepper, potatoes, spinach and chickpeas.

    From a dozen vegetarian entrees ($7.50-$8.50), I found the dal-makhni, matpa beans simmered with tomatoes and ginger, a tangy culinary treat. the more familiar bhartha was equally a palate-pleaser, the eggplant seasoned exactly right for my tastes.

    My dining companion enjoyed the aloo gobhi, a delicately seasoned mix of cauliflower, potatoes, green peas, green pepper, onion and tomatoes.

    For lamb lovers, Kohinoor offers five dishes ($10.95-$11.95). Perhaps the best of Kohinoor's traditional recipes is to be found among the tandoor selections 9$9.50-$15.95), six dishes prepared slowly, with mild and aromatic herbs, in a clay oven -- king-size, marinated shrimp, for example, or minced lamb. Then, too, there are seven chicken options ($9.50-$11.95) that find the bird cooked in everything from spinach to tomatoes to curry to almond sauce.

    While the restaurant offers a variety of entree specialties, we could have had just an assortment of their delightful breads ($1.75-$3.75) and left the place happy. An assortment of Indian desserts rounds out the menu.

    Whereas the food was good, and the surroundings lovely, the service was exceptional, with quiet, graceful women, in traditional dress, attending us unobtrusively and attentively.

    My mantra for this dining experience is definitely "yuummm."

    Winter Park gets its own Indian restaurant, though don’t expect anything beyond the ordinary. Tried-and-true standards define Moghul's kitchen, especially superb chicken tikka and seekh kebabs. Ghee-slicked peshawari naan are buttery, nutty and delightfully sweet wonders. Note: Ordering dishes "Indian hot" amounts to infernal. Closed Mondays.


    Teaser: Conveniently located for Full Sail students and staff, but don't expect anything beyond the ordinary. Tried-and-true standards define Moghul's kitchen, especially superb chicken tikka and seekh kebabs. Ghee-slicked peshawari naan are buttery, nutty and delightfully sweet wonders. Note: Ordering dishes 'Indian hotâ?� amounts to infernal. Closed Mondays.

    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.

    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.

    A few weeks ago, I mentioned how chefs in this city haven't ventured outside the frontiers of traditional Indian cookery, opting instead to stick to conventional, time-honored plates. Well, things have taken a turn for the better thanks to Shabber Chowdhury. The U.K.-trained chef (by way of Bengal) is raising the bar for Indian cuisine in Orlando, and it's about bloody time. His restaurant, Tabla, poses a more ambitious undertaking than any other Indian restaurant in town. Chowdhury's brand of "Indian fusion" transcends the humdrum, but food alone does not a good restaurant make. There are clear deficiencies in the service, and the kitchen isn't beyond reproach, but let's give credit to Chowdhury and proprietors Anshu Jain and Abhay Goel for bringing Indian fare to a level of refinement heretofore unseen in Central Florida.

    The interior, though tastefully appointed, doesn't befit the sophistication of the fare. The focus is on the food, and most dishes on the lengthy menu are handled with aplomb. Chili pakoras ($4), for example, are a South Asian take on jalapeno poppers and exhibit a remarkable touch with hot oil. Anaheim peppers are stuffed with cheese, coated with panko and deep-fried to a greaseless crisp, as are the quartet of dense, bite-sized samosas ($5), generously stuffed and drizzled with tangy tamarind chutney.

    Skewered chicken shashlik ($8) held much promise; that is, until I came across a few morsels of uncooked bird. Instead of taking the dish away, my server asked me to check the other pieces. I did and came across more uncooked chicken. The plate was finally taken away, but when the bill came, I was charged for the dish. On two separate visits, I got the same well-meaning yet woefully inexperienced server, who didn't seem to know anything about the menu items. A third visit proved better, but a knowledgeable wait staff would really elevate the experience.

    Thoughtfully executed mains underscore Chowdhury's approach to East-West fusion and get matters back on track. Kesari murgh ($12) marries homemade pesto and saffron sauce in an aromatically colorful union that upstages the cheese-stuffed chicken breast. Lamb do piazza's ($15) heady curry is made all the more assertive with cinnamon sticks, shaved almonds and strings of fried onions. Doughy sesame-seed-flecked tabla naan ($3) makes an ideal utensil for sopping up the cultivated curries, as does rice jazzed with cashews, saffron and cardamom.

    For meat-lovers, the mixed tandoori grill ($32) is a gorgeous presentation fit for the most ravenous of rajahs: tender marinated lamb chops served with mint-yogurt chutney; breadcrumb-coated, fenugreek-essenced chicken cubes; perfectly charred pieces of wonderfully seasoned shola lamb kebab; flawless chicken tikka; and a fiery red fillet of sour, tangy tandoori kingfish. Meatless wonders include paneer Akbari ($14), Indian cheese stuffed with cashews in a luscious tomato sauce, as well as flavor-before-fire paneer tikka masala ($14).

    Even desserts, the bane of Indian restaurants, continue the razzle-dazzling. Toffee pudding cake ($6), sided with stracciatella gelato and garnished with a passionfruit-glazed betel leaf, is a particular highlight. Mango sorbet, coconut gelato and hits of ginger pack a refreshing punch in the "cold n spicy" ($6), while addictive malai kofta ($6) dumplings are given a sweet twist with a chocolate filling. Caramelized Kashmiri chai custard ($6), while intriguing, failed to inspire.

    What does inspire me, though, is chef Chowdhury and his determination to march forward to the beat of his own tabla - the notes of familiarity and innovation set the standard for neo-India

    We didn't review this location, but here's our take on their sister location: "Winter Park finally gets a straight-up Indian restaurant, and Tamarind's familiar, fiery and focused dishes are worthy of the hamlet's food-driven denizens. Samosas and sizzling tandoor-fired lamb chops are the way to start; sample the "Tamarind special chicken" and bold salmon tikka for mains; then end with exotic falooda kulfi, ice cream made of condensed milk, rose syrup and crushed pistachios. Beware potholes when negotiating the Kmart plaza parking lot."

    Winter Park finally gets a straight-up Indian restaurant, and Tamarind's familiar, fiery and focused dishes are worthy of the hamlet's food-driven denizens. Samosas and sizzling tandoor-fired lamb chops are the way to start; sample the "Tamarind special chicken" and bold salmon tikka for mains; then end with exotic falooda kulfi, ice cream made of condensed milk, rose syrup and crushed pistachios. Beware potholes when negotiating the Kmart plaza parking lot.

    The section of South Orange Blossom Trail on the edge of Florida Mall territory has been catering to varying appetites for some time as the area continues to diversify. One of the area's few German restaurants is here (Gain's), Amigos caters to the Tex-Mex crowd, and Laxmi Plaza offers food and sundry shopping to a growing population of Indian residents.

    And when it comes to healthy appetites, Woodlands -- across the road from Laxmi -- is a restaurant worth adding to your go-to list. As their website (woodlands-usa.com) proclaims, "Step-in and you will be wafted with the aroma of enthralling culinary appetizing that the already proud regular customers are experiencing now."

    You also could be experiencing now the flavors, aromas and visual delight of the South Indian cuisine served here.

    Recipes from the southern region, the ancient India below the Vindhya Mountains, are based on Hindu tradition and use ingredients differently than the northern menus we're more familiar with. So no Kashmiri dishes like tandoori, no naan bread, no vindaloo. And no meat -- Woodlands maintains a "pure vegetarian" kitchen. (That means no animal fats, either.)

    Purely delightful is more to the point. Coconut milk instead of cream, mustard seeds and fiery-hot chili peppers add to the distinctive cookery. Woodlands specializes in dosai -- thin, plate-sized crepes that are fried crisp or filled with savory items like hot chutney or potatoes ($4.75 to $6.50).

    The traditional spicy and sour soup called rasam ($2.50), hot with peppers and sweet with tamarind, is a heated warm-up for dishes that stimulate every part of the tongue. Rich and sometimes smoky flavors inhabit "Gobi Manchurian" ($6.50), sautéed cauliflower, sharp with ginger and garlic, and spiced with chili and soy sauce. A concoction of lentils, brown rice and vegetables called "pongol avial" is one you'll want again ($6.50). My favorite Indian curry, the spinach-based palak paneer ($6.95) is done to a deep, creamy and slightly hot perfection.

    Settling in on a favorite is fine, but the bargain is one of the dinner specials. "Mysore Royal Thali" ($14.95) combines samosa appetizers, chana chickpea curry, spiced lentil sambar and more into a feast of bright colors (such as the green coriander raita sauce) and dazzling tastes.

    Offer thanks to the portrait by the front door of Sri Ganesha, the elephant-headed god of luck and new beginnings, for such a fine meal. As it says on the website, "We guarantee a sound and happy sleep after dinnertime at Woodlands."And one with a warm and satisfied belly.

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