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Indian eateries can spice up your day

"I don't meditate. I don't pray. But I eat two samosas every day" — Dan Bern, Rolling Away.

Many Indian cooks are promoters of the 3,000-year-old culinary/curative notions of Ayurveda, the science of life. The idea is that six rasas, or flavors, should guide the preparation of every meal. Sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter and astringent: Each restores mind and body when correctly proportioned to one another. Here's where Tampa Bay goes for a little rasa razzle-dazzle.

Near University of South Florida

Taj Indian Cuisine (2734 E Fowler Ave., Tampa; 813/971-8483) is the elder statesman in the area, having launched back in 1991. Ask around among faculty at USF and you start hearing the same thing: butter chicken, chicken madras, chicken tikka masala (academics like them some poultry, evidently). Taj also traffics in solid tandoori, um, chicken, as well as jumbo prawns. The weekday lunch buffet always includes four vegetarian dishes, three non-veg, two rices, two desserts, two appetizers and a fairly hefty salad bar. On the weekend toss idli sambar (traditional rice cakes that are Southern Indian breakfast items). And while the decor is no great shakes, the dining room is comfortable and service efficient.

Jai Ho Indian Cuisine (2311 E Fowler Ave., Tampa; 813/631-8439) has a slightly more upscale dining room and a similar menu, with a wide array of vegetarian dishes, Southern Indian items and Indo-Chinese fare. And when you get the wild hair to try rustling up some Indian food at home, Patel Brothers (1251 E Fowler Ave., Tampa; 813/558-9090) is a massive Indian grocery with other locations in Connecticut and California.

Temple Terrace

Cilantro Indian Cuisine's (11009 N 56th St., Tampa; 813/983-8220) setting is absolutely lovely — small dining rooms, each painted a different bright color, crockery all painted with the namesake herb, pretty lamps and table settings. Dinners start with complimentary classic, peppery papadum and a trio of excellent sauces: a sweet tamarind, a spicy onion pickle and a pale green cilantro sauce (it's the world's most widely consumed herb, despite all the hating). When you order dishes "hot" at Cilantro you get a raised eyebrow and the retort "Indian hot?" This is not an idle question.

Order the lamb vindaloo "Indian hot" and sweat is a certitude. But the slow-simmered lamb and potato hunks are so flavorful and tender that that's, well, water under the bridge. Cool it out with an order of bagara baingan, the soft braised eggplant showcased against peanut, coconut and sesame seeds (a winning trio if ever there was one).

Traditional nan, paratha and ballooning poori are all great bread accompaniments to the curries — tikka masala, korma and vindaloo — all textbook, offered with chicken, veggies, lamb or goat meat. (Don't discount goat — more oomph and richness than lamb because of the accompanying bones.)

Carrollwood

At Udipi Café (14422 N Dale Mabry Hwy., Tampa; 813/962-7300), forget lamb vindaloo. South Indian vegetarian will blow your taste buds sky-high with spicy eggplant curry. A bare-bones setting for an exotic cuisine, but don't expect a gastronomic tour guide. Go for the masala dosa, a huge, thin rice-and-lentil pancake rolled into tube so it looks like a sleeping bag on a platter, served with curry-spiked potato and onion paste, coconut chutney and sambar. Or head for one of the uthapam, a soft white pancake in which things like tomato, peas, cilantro and onion are embedded. Easiest eaten in triangular wedges dotted with sauce, it's like an Indian spin on pizza.

Low-carbers, beware! Much of the cuisine consists of different spins on breads, crepes and other starchy things, each served with a couple of tingly, alluring dipping sauces. These you can eat with reckless abandon, whether it's the stunning coconut chutney made of chopped fresh coconut, yogurt, black mustard seed and some kind of sneaky chiles, or the spicy, tomatoey sambar or simple cucumber-and-onion raita. No alcohol.

New Tampa

Saffron Indian Cuisine (10044 Cross Creek Blvd., Tampa; 813/600-3315), Sunita Chheda's small, strip-mall restaurant, opened in 2008 across from the New Tampa Library, is a find. In the kitchen, Chheda is bold, unafraid of serious spiciness. But her heat is not a straightforward hurts-so-good kind of thing. It's nuanced, the flavorful food relying on a cumulative effect to get you sniffling. She presides over an ambitious menu, her skills equally devoted to the tandoor, veggies and pulses, and a broad lineup of savory lamb and goat dishes. Choose your breads (naan, roti, paratha and ballooning poori are all tempting) and then something scoopable, perhaps a tandoor-smoky roasted eggplant baingan bharta or creamy whole lentil daal makhni.

Pinellas Park

Taste of Punjab (6540 Park Blvd., Pinellas Park; 727/545-4103) is a big, comfortable box with a small buffet line near the entrance. The menu's greatest density of standouts cluster in the bread section: Beyond the hot-off-the-tandoor regular naan, you'll find naan stuffed with soft curried potato or spongy paneer cheese and a range of buttery, flaky paratha delicious enough to spoil your appetite. Add to these an order of deep-fried vegetable pakora and you're going to be hard-pressed to delve too deeply into the curries and biryanis.

But delve you should. Many of the same preparations are brought to bear on lamb, beef and seafood: tikka masala, saag (that's the forest-green chopped spinach sauce) and rogan josh (a kind of brown, mild curry heady with cardamom rogan is Persian for clarified butter, josh means passionate). Our hands-down favorite was a lamb vindaloo, not fiery, but with oomph. This version had a little tart kick that might have been tamarind pulp and a little cider vinegar. Scoop it onto rice and adorn it on all sides with condiments like a cilantro-mint chutney or salty-spicy achaar (classic Indian pickled veggies marinated in citrus and chile) or a sweet mango chutney.

Largo

Deeya Indian Cuisine (5166 E Bay Drive, Largo; 727/539-0273), another serious longtimer, features the punchy cuisine of the northern Punjabi region. What Deeya does best is playing with fire: From their tandoor oven emanate exemplary chicken, seekh (ground lamb) kababs studded with onion and herbs, tender lamb cubes marinated in gingery yogurt, garlicky shrimp and, a standout, the chicken kashmiri, its sauce a lush past of almond, cashew and yogurt.

Only a couple items from the tandoor are on offer at the lunchtime buffet, but Deeya nonetheless has a following for its steam table array (honestly, this is a cuisine that doesn't particularly suffer by a long simmer in a stainless steel buffet line), the dals and veggie curries especially well done. Again, if anything here inspires a little kitchen adventuring, the nearby Mahal Bazaar (2480 E Bay Dr., Largo; 727/536-2178) is one of the Tampa Bay area's best Indian groceries.

By Laura Reiley

lreiley@tampabay.com

"I don't meditate. I don't pray. But I eat two samosas every day"—Dan Bern, Rolling Away.

Many Indian cooks are promoters of the 3,000-year-old culinary/curative notions of Ayurveda, the science of life. The idea is that six rasas, or flavors, should guide the preparation of every meal. Sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter and astringent: Each restores mind and body when correctly proportioned to one another. Here's where Tampa Bay goes for a little rasa razzle-dazzle.

Near University of South Florida

Taj Indian Cuisine (2734 E Fowler Ave., Tampa; 813/971-8483) is the elder statesman in the area, having launched back in 1991. Ask around among faculty at USF and you start hearing the same thing: butter chicken, chicken madras, chicken tikka masala (academics like them some poultry, evidently). Taj also traffics in solid tandoori, um, chicken, as well as jumbo prawns. The weekday lunch buffet always includes four vegetarian dishes, three non-veg, two rices, two desserts, two appetizers and a fairly hefty salad bar. On the weekend toss idli sambar (traditional rice cakes that are Southern Indian breakfast items). And while the decor is no great shakes, the dining room is comfortable and service efficient.

Jai Ho Indian Cuisine (2311 E Fowler Ave., Tampa; 813/631-8439) has a slightly more upscale dining room and a similar menu, with a wide array of vegetarian dishes, Southern Indian items and Indo-Chinese fare. And when you get the wild hair to try rustling up some Indian food at home, Patel Brothers (1251 E Fowler Ave., Tampa; 813/558-9090) is a massive Indian grocery with other locations in Connecticut and California.

Temple Terrace

Cilantro Indian Cuisine's (11009 N 56th St., Tampa; 813/983-8220) setting is absolutely lovely — small dining rooms, each painted a different bright color, crockery all painted with the namesake herb, pretty lamps and table settings. Dinners start with complimentary classic, peppery papadum and a trio of excellent sauces: a sweet tamarind, a spicy onion pickle and a pale green cilantro sauce (it's the world's most widely consumed herb, despite all the hating). When you order dishes "hot" at Cilantro you get a raised eyebrow and the retort "Indian hot?" This is not an idle question.

Order the lamb vindaloo "Indian hot" and sweat is a certitude. But the slow-simmered lamb and potato hunks are so flavorful and tender that that's, well, water under the bridge. Cool it out with an order of bagara baingan, the soft braised eggplant showcased against peanut, coconut and sesame seeds (a winning trio if ever there was one).

Traditional nan, paratha and ballooning poori are all great bread accompaniments to the curries — tikka masala, korma and vindaloo — all textbook, offered with chicken, veggies, lamb or goat meat. (Don't discount goat — more oomph and richness than lamb because of the accompanying bones.)

Carrollwood

At Udipi Café (14422 N Dale Mabry Hwy., Tampa; 813/962-7300), forget lamb vindaloo. South Indian vegetarian will blow your taste buds sky-high with spicy eggplant curry. A bare-bones setting for an exotic cuisine, but don't expect a gastronomic tour guide. Go for the masala dosa, a huge, thin rice-and-lentil pancake rolled into tube so it looks like a sleeping bag on a platter, served with curry-spiked potato and onion paste, coconut chutney and sambar. Or head for one of the uthapam, a soft white pancake in which things like tomato, peas, cilantro and onion are embedded. Easiest eaten in triangular wedges dotted with sauce, it's like an Indian spin on pizza.

Low-carbers, beware! Much of the cuisine consists of different spins on breads, crepes and other starchy things, each served with a couple of tingly, alluring dipping sauces. These you can eat with reckless abandon, whether it's the stunning coconut chutney made of chopped fresh coconut, yogurt, black mustard seed and some kind of sneaky chiles, or the spicy, tomatoey sambar or simple cucumber-and-onion raita. No alcohol.

New Tampa

Saffron Indian Cuisine (10044 Cross Creek Blvd., Tampa; 813/600-3315), Sunita Chheda's small, strip-mall restaurant, opened in 2008 across from the New Tampa Library, is a find. In the kitchen, Chheda is bold, unafraid of serious spiciness.

Indian eateries can spice up your day 10/23/13 [Last modified: Thursday, October 24, 2013 3:48pm]
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