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Taste of India, 1609 East Bell Road, Phoenix, 788-3190. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; Dinner, 5 to 10 p.m., seven days a week.

About the time most of our ancestors were running around in loincloths, scribbling on cave walls and throwing rocks at woolly mammoths, the cooks of India were developing the art of cuisine.

For thousands of years, exotic herbs and spices have been the keys to Indian food, unleashing tantalizing aromas and seductive flavors.

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Taste of India

1609 E. Bell Road
Phoenix, AZ 85022

Category: Restaurant > Indian

Region: North Phoenix

But these seasonings do more than just enhance taste; they also balance the properties of certain foods. Asafetida, an antiflatulent, is routinely added to lentil preparations. Fenugreek staves off indigestion. Different spices also work best at different times of the year. Black cardamom and ginger are considered "warm" spices, best suited for hearty, cold-weather dishes. Cloves and fennel, on the other hand, are "cool," and often laced in refreshing summer drinks.

Sophisticated, unfamiliar and a bit pricey, Indian food has yet to burst through the American restaurant barrier. While hundreds of Chinese, Italian and Mexican restaurants flourish in the Valley, there are fewer than a dozen Indian outlets. A new one is Taste of India, run by friendly, English-accented Indians just arrived in town.

It's a spiffy, casual place, but with touches of elegance like a pretty, floral carpet and a long, oak bar. The Indian theme is lightly handled--no high-decibel Ravi Shankar music intrudes on the meal. Instead, we heard low Hindi "oldies," which got Anu and Ratan, my Indian companions, humming.

Eye-catching cloth prints, highlighted with sequins, play out scenes from the poetry of Omar Khayy m. A dartboard by the bar provides the only other visual diversion.

Happily, the food offers plenty of gustatory excitement.
Some robust appetizers suggested that Taste of India was not simply going through the motions. Cheese pakora are fritters, cubed bits of homemade cheese (paneer), fragrant with mint leaves, dipped in batter and deep-fried. Onion bhaji are more like onion pancakes, with a marvelous chickpea coating. They leave their American counterparts, mozzarella sticks and onion rings, in the dust, especially if you dip them in the spicy mint chutney or tart tamarind relish.

Bread is the test of an Indian kitchen, and Taste of India's has a quality and variety that are unequaled in the Valley. Bhatura, deep-fried, leavened bread, is much like Navajo fry bread--thick, puffy and doughy. Aloo paratha, whole-wheat bread stuffed with potatoes and spices, and naan, cooked up in the tandoor, a ferociously hot clay oven, just about made the rest of the meal superfluous.

But then we would have missed the superb Indian fare, in dreamy sauces, served up in somewhat-less-than-generous portions. Chicken makhni is tandoori-baked chicken simmered in a gorgeous, buttery tomato sauce, accented with cumin. The clay oven thoroughly cooks the chicken while keeping it meltingly moist.

Shrimp korma features fresh, firm crustaceans braised in a scrumptious, thick, velvety coconut sauce. The combination of textures imparts terrific mouth appeal to this dish.

Lamb kashmiry brought reasonably tender hunks of lamb in a heady, almost otherworldly cream sauce. This time the air was heavy with the fragrance of apples and pears. Combined with almonds and quick-fried spices, then blended into a rich sauce, the ingredients inspired so much pleasure that we feared there must have been something illegal or immoral about them.

Vegetarians often gripe about the slim pickings in the Valley. But Indian vegetable dishes are a great alternative to the sprout-laden platters that darken local restaurants. The Hindu proscription of beef, and the Moslem injunction against pork, helped create an astonishing variety of meatless fare. (Neither beef nor pork is served here.) And Taste of India does a particularly fine job.

Americans tend to associate okra with the bayou, and with bland, mushy, slimy stews. In India, though, it's saut‚ed in hot oil and combined with spices. The nifty version here, bhindi masala, has lots of crunch, lots of zip and lots of flavor.

Just as appealing is bengan bhartha, starring versatile eggplant. The eggplant is roasted, pur‚ed and mixed with a spice rack full of seasonings, with an extra-strong dose of ginger.

Most interesting among the 13 vegetarian offerings is malai kofta, little vegetable meatballs blended with paneer, simmered with butter and cream in a light, aromatic tomato sauce.

All the dishes come … la carte, and it's necessary to order some basmati rice to accompany them. This isn't much of a hardship--the naturally perfumed rice will amply demonstrate why 700 million Indians can't be wrong. Aficionados can also get achar, violently hot pickled fruit and vegetables--not on the menu--that go well with vegetarian food.

Indian desserts don't translate too well in the West. But adventurous diners shouldn't miss ras malai, an intricate Bengali treat of pistachio-flecked sweet milk and cheese. A bit lower on the exotic scale is mango kulfi, a kind of Indian ice cream made from thickened milk. Even if you skip dessert, don't forget to leave room for Indian tea. It's a milky, cardamom-scented brew that may tempt you to toss away your coffee mug forever. Taste of India, on its own, may not be enough to tear down the wall between Indian food and mass popularity. But it's certainly going to be able to make a few dents.

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