Indian in North

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    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.

    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.

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