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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.

    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.



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