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Indian Summer 

Mirch Masala kicks up the heat

click to enlarge At Mirch Masala, they take their spices seriously. - CREIGHTON SMITH

Since the Eagles blew through town a couple weekends ago, I can't help humming There's a new kid in town ... . I hum because I'm tone deaf, and humming seems to offend fewer people than my singing.

But the new kid? That would be Mirch Masala, handily located in the Union Square Shopping Center a few doors down from Wild Oats. They specialize in kebab and curry dining, and as the new kid, they aim to please.

Their ad promises a "lavish lunch buffet," and for once I would have to agree. This isn't the same old buffet with the same curried potatoes and peas, lentils and pakora. There were new items on this buffet, and the staff promises me that the menu on the buffet changes frequently.

I sampled some doughnut-shaped fritters that turned out to be made of lentils, with a spicy sauce (think green chili, but Indian) ladled on top. Superb! The saag, a sublime, delicately spiced sort of creamed spinach, was studded with tender chunks of slow-cooked chicken. The Tandoori chicken, traditionally rubbed with a marinade and roasted in a clay oven, was tender and juicy. I could easily have continued eating until I hurt myself, but I saved a little room for a dreamy, creamy mango custard. For $7.95, this is definitely a lunchtime treat.

There are a couple of little differences that sets Mirch Masala apart. First, I found the dishes to be on the spicy side, although none were painfully so. It's nice to have Indian food that is authentically spiced instead of dumbed-down for the American palate. I thought the mint/cilantro chutney was wonderful, and the onion chutney, thick and red, was milder than I expected. The tamarind chutney, on the other hand, balanced the thick sweetness with a pleasant underlying heat. Another nice touch is the basket of chewy, warm, flat naan bread, which is delivered to each table during the lunch buffet.

Dinner is an extremely difficult meal at Mirch Masala, because you will be inundated with exotic, delicious-sounding choices. You can choose from their full bar, or from a list of Indian drinks (non-alcoholic), which are tangy and refreshing, but not sweet. To tide us over, we chose a sampler platter of appetizers -- and I've got both good and bad news.

First, the bad: I don't have individual names for all the items on the platter. Now, the good: It didn't matter what they were called, because every morsel was delicious. The tiny cheesy triangles disappeared first, rapidly followed by the spicy, crunchy vegetable pakoras. We dipped with abandon into all three of the chutneys that came with the platter.

Still floundering with indecision, we ordered three types of naan bread with our meal, ranging from $2.95 to $3.25. They were all delicious. The chewy naan bread is filled with the seasoning of your choice. Ours were filled with cheese, with spices, fruits and nuts, and with rogan josh seasoning (think curry, but with more depth). Despite the fact that we ordered more than enough food for four people, not a crumb of the naan was left at the end of the meal.

There is so much to sample on this menu, for meat lovers and vegetarians alike. The Baigan Bharata ($8.95) is a wonderful eggplant dish, where the eggplant is cooked long enough to blend with the seasonings and other vegetables. The Bhuna Gost ($10.95), in my mind, is one of the more perfect reasons for eating lamb. It was so well trimmed and tender, cooked with onions, spices and chilies in a thick sauce, that it just begged to be soaked up with some of the naan. The Malabar Fish Curry ($10.95) was completely new to me. The boneless chunks of fillet were perfectly timed, not overcooked, in a subtle curry spice that didn't overwhelm the flavor of the fish though it still carried considerable heat. To me, that is the best part of Indian curries -- the heat doesn't overwhelm the flavor, but is an integral part of it.

Of course, we had to try the signature dish, Kabab Mirch Masala ($13.95), which arrives looking rather like a platter of fajitas. But that is where the resemblance ends. Ground sirloin and ground lamb are combined with a number of spices and grilled. They are removed to a platter of crisp-tender sauted onions and green peppers, and served while they are still sizzling hot. The meat is moist and tender, and the combination of beef and lamb makes something new and altogether delicious.

Despite our groaning waistbands, we ordered two desserts to share. Malai Kulfi ($3.50) is a lovely, light, sweet rice pudding, more on the liquid side than the custard side. (It's also usually available on the lunch buffet.) The Gajar Halva ($2.95) was more difficult to quantify. It's a carrot pudding, served warm, and I kept taking small bites trying to determine if I really liked it or not. It is an intensely carrot-y dish, but warm, soothing and sweet. I guess I'll have to try it again to decide.

capsule

Mirch Masala

5047 N. Academy Blvd., 599-0003

Open for lunch daily, 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; dinner Tuesday through Sunday, 5-10 p.m.

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