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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.

    For many years, Woodlands restaurant on Orange Blossom Trail monopolized South Indian cuisine in this city. Not that their domination was a bad thing ' Woodlands' kitchen has always been consistent and their peppery all-veg fare gratifying. But in recent years, others have come to challenge Woodlands' supremacy; namely, Udipi Cafe in Longwood, and now Bombay Café, housed inside the Laxmi Plaza directly across the street from Woodlands. Go inside and traipse to the back of the building past the Indian grocery, fashion boutique and video store and there, on the right, a pleasant and pungent sanctuary awaits.

    The ordering system isn't complicated: peruse a menu and order at the counter, take a number, have a seat and the food will be brought out to you. Thing is, the menu is somewhat daunting, so diners tend to seat themselves, then examine the menu, then head back to the counter, place their order, get a number and take their seats again (assuming they weren't taken by another party). The place really calls for table service, but it's a small hassle given the rewarding dishes the kitchen churns out.

    Several chaat dishes offer a texturally diverse start to the meal: peanuts and puffed rice lend a marvelous crunch to gut-burning bhel puri ($3.95); creamy aloo tikki's ($3.95) potato base is punctuated with chickpeas and sweet and spicy chutneys; and the Bombay special ($4.95) offers the works ' fried lentil beans, chickpeas, sev, cilantro, tomato, onions and yogurt atop potato fritters. I wasn't all too impressed with diminutive potato vada ($3.50) dumplings (I'm partial to Woodlands' ample potato bonda), though midsize samosas ($2) were seasoned to satisfaction. Dosas are synonymous with South Indian fare, and traditional masala dosa ($5.99), with a potato and onion filling, is a crepe of comfort.

    For me, pooris and baturas (fried poofy breads resembling blimps) offer the ultimate comfort. Sample the poori bhaji ($6.45), with seasoned potatoes, or the chole bathura ($7.45), a chickpea curry, and you'll concur. A friend of mine is hooked on garlic naan ($1.99), more of a Northern Indian delicacy, which she enjoys with saffron-tinged biryani mixed with paneer, peas, bell peppers and cauliflower.

    The heady vegetable makes another appearance in sweet and hot gobi Manchurian ($7.99), only here the cauliflower is battered and lightly fried, served with an optional soy-based sauce. I prefer it with the sauce, though you can always get it on the side. Cheese cubes are tandoori-marinated in the thick paneer tikka ($9), a dish similar in taste to chicken tikka masala. My favorite curry, however, is the infernal dum aloo chettinad ($8.95). The neck-sweat'inducing dark potato gravy is redolent with cumin seeds, green chilies, tomato and ginger slivers, and best enjoyed with whole wheat chapati ($2.45).

    With the blaze of spices, seasonings and chilies circulating through your bloodstream, there are, thankfully, plenty of coolants to help temper the heat. The mango or mixed-berry milkshake ($3.95) soothes while you eat; sweet, milky payasam ($2.50) with raisins, almonds and cashews effectively puts out the fire. (Use any leftover poori to scoop it up.)

    A quote by Gandhi ' 'Be the change you want to see in the worldâ?� ' hangs on the wall behind the counter. It's a fitting maxim given Bombay Café's resolve in initiating a change of the guard.

    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.

    Ever since Clay Oven closed its doors in the summer of 2007, Longwood has experienced a bit of a vacuum in restaurants specializing in traditional Indian cuisine. Udipi Café, a South Indian vegetarian restaurant, took over Clay Oven’s space, but meat-eaters had few to no options. So Narendra Kapoor – no stranger to the restaurant biz, having worked in kitchens in Mumbai, Belize, New York and Toronto – and his wife moved in to the fill the void. And though their Hindu faith precludes the use of beef in any of the dishes, the extensive menu has plenty of chicken, lamb, goat and seafood items to keep carnivores satisfied.

    Gateway to India’s exterior still screams Pizza Hut, but once inside, the heady scent of incense mixed with the fragrant spice of grilled meats erases any notions of personal pan pizzas. Embroidered red banquettes dominate the perfectly square, brightly lit space, while framed Indian art and valances do their part to mask those characteristic brick walls. Unfortunately, a mixture of minced lamb and turkey couldn’t mask the uncharacteristically insipid essence of the seekh kebab ($9.95). It may have been the marinade or the incompatibility of the meats, but this is one starter worth passing up. The assorted platter ($7.95) was a hit-and-miss affair of various fried vegetarian snacks, with the batata vada (spicy deep-fried potato balls) and the aloo tiki (potato and pea patties jacked with chili peppers and coriander) the best of the lot. The rest of the offerings – hard-shelled samosas, cauliflower fritters and spinach and onion pakoras – were just too dry to enjoy.

    Entree selection can take some deliberation, given the sheer number of mains offered, but even as warning bells sounded in my head, I ultimately decided on the ironically misspelled chicken chilly ($13.95). Diced Thai peppers and onions flavor the gelatinous sauce with morsels of chicken breast; the Indian-style Chinese dish is blisteringly hot and certainly not for diners with pusillanimous palates. If you enjoy a meal that makes your nose run and your head sweat, look no further. The dish comes with a side of black-lentil curry, which begs for a bread dip – get the bread basket ($8.95) and choose from unleavened wonders like fried poori, tandoori roti and aloo naan stuffed with seasoned potatoes. (The latter keeps well for nibbling the following day.)

    An assortment of meats in the tandoori mixed grill ($19.95) – chicken, lamb, shrimp and salmon – is served sizzling on a hot plate and dressed with onions and green peppers. Apart from wondrously moist and garlicky chicken tikka and deeply marinated tandoori chicken, none of the other meats impressed me. Cubes of lamb boti kebab were dry and chewy; the shrimp was hard; and the salmon fillet, though flaky, had a bitter aftertaste.

    Kapoor developed the menu, but leaves the cooking to others while he serves as host and waiter. His post-meal recommendation of Indian coffee ($2.95) was spot-on, even though it wasn’t served in a traditional stainless steel tumbler. The syrup of the gulab jamun ($3.95) was lukewarm, and the fried milk and cheese balls disintegrated too easily, but silken ras malai ($3.95), cottage cheese patties soaked in sweetened milk with a rose essence, fared much better.

    Gateway has potential, but needs to close the door on its unwieldy menu. A focus on the dishes they do best will undoubtedly elevate the quality and usher in more hits than misses.

    Gateway has potential, but needs to close the door on its unwieldy menu. A focus on the dishes they do best will undoubtedly elevate the quality and usher in more hits than misses.

    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.

    There aren't that many places in town, if any, that serve the gloriously spiced chapli kebab, the popular Afghan-Pakistani patty that's made my mouth water ever since sampling the beefy delight when I was but a lad. So when I saw chapli kebab ($11.99) listed on the menu of Kabob n' Curry, a quiet, tastefully appointed corner-space eatery in a tourist-area strip mall, a Pavlovian impulse kick-started my salivary glands. As I soon found out, the kebab was well worth the drool. The sizable slabs of moist mince, oh-so-subtly crunchy with pomegranate and coriander seeds, are pan-fried and served on a bed of lettuce. On a previous visit, the kebabs were served sizzling on a hot plate, but no matter how they're served, they'll totally gratify. Just be sure to ask for a plate of rice (it's complimentary), and an extra bowl of their incendiary chutney to drizzle atop the meat.

    Even though the restaurant touts a menu of 'Indian gourmet cuisine,â?� I found myself drawn to the Pakistani dishes ' specifically the nehari ($11.99), arguably the country's most luscious dish. 'Neharâ?� translates to 'morningâ?� in Urdu ' so no surprise, then, that the meal is traditionally enjoyed in the morning hours. No matter the time of day, this is Pakistani comfort food at its finest. The velvety-soft shanks of beef are cooked overnight in a thick, lubricious curry spiked with bursts of ginger and chilies. The dish is best enjoyed with one of the many breads offered ' I opted for fluffy tandoori roti ($1.50) as my sop of choice.

    Aloo paratha ($2.99) worked better as an appetizer. The spiced-potato-stuffed flatbread was cooked to a slightly greasy crisp, but wonderfully flavored nonetheless. No Indo-Pak feast is complete without an order of samosas ($2.99), and the pair of deep-fried potato-veggie pockets here are served up piping hot, though not together. Our waiter brought but one samosa at first and, naturally, I thought we were getting hosed on the deal. But soon after we cut it in half and finished it, the second one was delivered ' much to our delight. The service, it should be mentioned, has always been efficient and friendly, if somewhat inexperienced, but the wait staff is always eager to please. I ordered the pani puri ($3.99) ' the classic street food snack consisting of puffy puri bread stuffed to bursting with curry, potatoes, puffed wheat and chutney ' but they didn't have enough of the wee whole wheat crispy puffs to warrant charging us, so they placed a trio of puri on a plate, filled them with chickpeas and served it with a bowl of spicy ginger water, at no cost. The result, unfortunately, wasn't worth the price. Even the ginger water flourish couldn't save this one. Note: If you do sample the dish, or any of the 'chaatâ?� (snack) dishes, be aware that a primary ingredient is asafoetida, and that its strong sulfurous odor may be too much for diners unaccustomed to its pungency.

    Falooda ($3.99), the rose-essenced ice cream dessert drink, neutralized the odor, but I was a little disappointed by the absence of vermicelli noodles, not to mention the fact that the ice cream had all but melted when it got to the table. Doughy rounds of gulab jamun ($3.99) didn't come in a pool of syrup, but they were saturated enough to satisfy a sweet tooth.

    Diners, take heed: The dishes here pack a lot of heat, but culinary riches await those who battle the blaze.

    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."

    Indian food in Orlando hasn't attained the levels of sophistication found in larger cities where chefs are challenged to test the boundaries of 'ethnicâ?� cuisine. So until that day comes, we'll settle for the usual standards of Indo-Pak fare, and there's nothing wrong with that. Having grown up on Indian cooking, I make it a point to seek a derivative of mom's kitchen at least once a week. Seminole County isn't the first place I'd look, but the area is home to a large number of South Asians, so selecting Lake Mary as the site for Memories of India, the Sequel, is hardly surprising. What is surprising is that I found the overall experience here to be as good, if not better, than at the venerable Memories of India in the Bay Hill Plaza. The fact that chef-owner Jackoswald Philip left to man the satellite kitchen in Lake Mary has something to do with it, but I was also impressed by the genuinely gracious wait staff, and their perceptive recognition of the line between obligingly attentive and unbearably obsequious.

    There's no shame, however, in fawning over a cup of masala tea ($3.75), a popular après-meal beverage that'll rouse the appetite just the same. Crispy bites of pappadums prep palates for the spiced affair to come, as will lifting the lids off the containers in the relish tray. Chutneys and pickled condiments are necessary adjuncts to Indian cuisine and allow flavors to run wild ' a mouthful of rice and curry without pickled carrots, mango or green chilies thrown in the mix is gastronomic suffocation, in my opinion. Hence, dipping liberally into the mint and tamarind chutneys augmented the essence of items presented in the nawabi lukme appetizer plate ($12.50): insipid green-pepper pakoras and crumbly-shelled samosas, in particular, really needed it; silken lamb seekh kebab was made all the better with a tamarind splash; while juicy red morsels of chicken tikka are flawless as they were.

    Mains draw inspiration from all over the Indian subcontinent with, commendably, little to no temperance for Western palates. Green chilies and crushed peppercorns provided the bass note to lamb shakuti's ($14.95) fragrantly lavish sauce, each meaty chunk sweetened with the essence of roasted coconut. A few bites of carrot pickle worked wonders for the Goan specialty, as did a side of unleavened goodness ' superlative aloo paratha ($3.50), glistening with ghee and stuffed with seasoned potatoes and peas, is one of a dozen tandoor-baked breads offered. The sly heat of crushed pepper greeted me in the chicken kali murch ($14), a saucy number gorgeously streaked with paneer and textured with bell peppers.

    The token wine-and-beer list does little to complement your meal, but desserts are necessary to complete it. Creamy, rich kulfi ($4.25) is a palliative pistachio ice, though neophytes may be put off by the waxy finish. The gulab jamun ($3.95), my favorite South Indian sweet, was as good as I've had anywhere on the continent. Take your sweet time with the syrup-soaked cheese balls, and be sure to have them warmed before biting in ' the finish is guaranteed to be memorable.

    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.



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