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  • Resturants: Ethnic and Specialty
Indian cuisine is renowned for its creative use of spices, and Taste of India doesn't hold back. The seductive scents hit us as soon as we walk in the door -- onion, cumin, garlic, turmeric, coriander, chili powder, mustard, fenugreek and ginger root.

Whether we're there for the bargain-priced lunch buffet, or for the equally affordable dinners, the smell has us salivating before we sit down.

Try the lamb kashmiry, resting in an ethereal cream sauce blossoming with apples, pears and almonds. Chicken makhni is another blissful dish, bringing tandoori-baked chicken simmered in velvety tomato sauce. It's all the better that Taste of India believes in huge portions.

This is also where we go for a broad selection of great seafood dishes, such as shrimp sagg, a decadent ocean treat of jumbo shrimp with spinach, broccoli, herbs and yes, spices.

Readers' Choice: Delhi Palace

The road to health -- like that to hell -- is paved with good intentions. Not to mention scads of diet-busting restaurants and fast-food joints serving up nutritional no-no's guaranteed to steer you off course.

But thanks to the good -- and good-for-you -- eats at the Green Leaf Cafe, you may finally make it to the finish line in fine fettle.

An international food bazaar of body-beneficial provender, the cafe serves up healthful dishes accented by the cuisines of Persia, the Mediterranean, Italy, America and Mexico, as well as Cajun and the Orient. Vegetables are everywhere, tofu shows up here and there, and brown rice with lentils (a fully balanced meal in itself) comes with almost every dish. The magic, though, is in the fresh herbs and spices -- oregano, basil, mint, dill, fennel, cumin, garlic, capers, parsley, ginger, fenugreek, cilantro and more.

All is not green, however. Despite a menu with a heavy vegan slant, the kitchen also offers entrees containing chicken, turkey, fish and eggs -- but no red meat. There, don't you feel better already?

Readers' Choice: Blue Burrito Grille

Yearning Japanese?

Then head east to Hiro Sushi, home of the Valley's most inscrutable eats. Fourteen lunch combinations present a dizzying array of teriyaki, tempura, gyoza, katsu, sushi and sashimi. Dinner combos, meanwhile, are a veritable feast of build-your-owns, conveniently priced per how many items you order. Your customized meals are prettily laid out in red lacquer trays and decorated with rice, miso and salad.

Specialties include salmon teriyaki, sanma (pike), saba shioyaki (mackerel), fried oyster and ginger pork. Sushi gets creative, too: Arizona roll (asparagus, scallop, avocado, cucumber); crazy roll (spicy tuna, avocado, smelt roe, fried shrimp, wrapped in pink soybean paper); and ribbon roll (spicy tuna, salmon and avocado).

Hiro's selections are beautifully fresh -- just ask the man himself. He'll happily bring out an entire fish for you to inspect, proudly claiming, "We just got this in today."

For topflight Japanese food, it's our Hiro.

Readers' Choice: Ra Sushi Bar Restaurant

What's a nice grill like you doing in a place like this?

At Arisoo, the grill is installed in a table, cooking up some sensational meats over gas flames. Treats like gal bi (short ribs marinated in soy), bul gogi (thinly sliced marinated beef tenderloin), dak bul gogi (chicken) and deaji bul gogi (pork).

Guests spread lettuce leaves with bean paste, rice, and their choice of pickled condiments like cabbage, radish, broccoli, bean sprouts, soy potatoes, cucumber, zucchini, garlic, kimchee and jalapeño pepper. The huge assortment of veggies is spicy hot, just the way these diners like them. Diners add the done-to-a-turn meat, wrap up the lettuce like a burrito, and munch happily away.

Good grill.

Restaurant Oceana prides itself on serving just-caught seafood on a daily changing menu. For us, this means sparkling ahi, Maine day boat scallops, Atlantic salmon, Hog Island oysters, Dungeness crab, Alaskan halibut and more. And though such seafood is available at many other places around town, Oceana gets highest marks not only for its unparalleled freshness, but also for creative preparation.

Billed as American cuisine with Asian and French overtones, the menu boasts dynamite dishes like miso-marinated Chilean sea bass with bok choy, shiitake, and jasmine rice, plus our absolute favorite: mustard crusted trout with leek whipped potatoes, snap peas and grilled red onion pan sauce.

We're especially hooked on Oceana's tasting menus, bringing us four-, five- or six-course feasts, paired with wines if we like. The experience makes relaxing in this elegant place easy, lounging under portraits painted by such greats as local artist Frank Ybarra, fiddling with the colorful fish figurines decorating our table, and watching what's up in the exposed kitchen.

There's always another fish in the sea, so the saying goes. We're happy enough with what we've found at Oceana.

Readers' Choice: Red Lobster

We were good kids and always ate our vegetables. We'll never refuse a radish, sneer at a squash or thumb our noses at a tomato.

Particularly not when they're crafted into such decadent creations such as the blue corn tamales served at In Season Deli. Seven different garden-fresh veggies are blended with three kinds of ground corn and spices, formed by hand and steamed to a mellow finish. Paired with a side of pinto or black beans, they're as nutritional as they are delicious.

The veggie sandwich, too, reminds us why we had no problem growing up big and strong. We like stuffing our toasted pita with hummus, tomato pesto, cucumber, tomato, bell pepper, sprouts, lettuce, red onions and carrots.

And for those who think a salad isn't substantial, we suggest In Season's five-salad sampler, with different choices prepared daily. We're particularly smitten by Caroline's Tomato Pasta, the arroz ole and the garden rotelli.

Vegetarian food can be sinfully tasty, too -- as one bite of the deli's homemade rice pudding proves.

We're believers. It's always the right time for In Season.

Chef Vincent Guerithault long has reigned supreme as master of high-end Southwestern cuisine. When he first introduced the concept in the mid-'80s, he was considered radical for his innovative combination of classic French cooking and flavors of Mexico and the American Southwest.

A decade and a half later, little has changed about his menu, cooking philosophy, or his well-deserved status as one of the Valley's most recognized chefs.

As always, the Southwestern influence takes center stage at Vincent's, showcasing chiles, native corn, and flurries of fresh herbs. Time-tested favorites include a rapturous salmon quesadilla, duck tamale with Anaheim chile, lobster chimichanga with basil pesto, and house-smoked fish, laid over a thin, phyllo-like crust dabbed with dill and horseradish cream.

Under Vincent's inspired direction, it's Southwestern with style, a region to believe.

Coyote Grill shows us why good Southwestern food will never be the flash-in-the-pan trend critics thought it would be back in the '80s. Who could turn their nose up at citrus-crusted catfish in spicy orange chipotle sauce; or Southwestern beef Wellington, stuffing filet mignon in puff pastry with mushrooms and hot cascabel chile sauce? Not us, certainly.

No, we've got our schnozzes firmly buried in executive chef Farn Boggie's steaming-hot onion soup, the rich beef stock splashed with Corona beer, soaking with thick croutons that taste of Pumpernickel, capped with melting Swiss cheese and served in a ceramic crock.

We're happily face-first in a plate of decadent salmon, overflowing with huge chunks in puff pastry with mushrooms, spinach and parmesan cream.

The grill's setting is pure Southwestern style -- sleek with inset stained glass, copper accents and a big, inviting bar. After a few margaritas, we feel rowdy and ask to try Boggie's "adventurous" selection -- "Let the chef pick something for you. May or may not be from the menu (your waitperson does not know what it is, either)."

We've never been disappointed. Now that's what gives a cuisine staying power.

Readers' Choice for Best Southwestern Restaurant: Z'Tejas Grill

Good sushi needn't cost an arm and a tentacle, although it usually does.

Happily, Ichi Ban turns the tide on steep-priced swimmers with its buffet-style sushi spread, a staggering array of Pisces-in-the-raw that will set you back just $13.95 at lunch, and $20.95 at dinner.

Except for the price, there's nothing cut-rate about this all-you-can-eat fish fest that offers more than 50 items. The top quality selections include pale pink albacore tuna, bright red maguro, silky salmon, buttery hamachi, cooked shrimp, flaky kani, red snapper, scallop and eel. Other choices include baked salmon, gyoza, snow crab and tempura, as well as an impressive array of premade hand rolls.

Ichi Ban's sushi buffet? We'll bite.

C-Fu's got excellent Chinese food, and then some. It's got meals on wheels, and dim sum.

The huge restaurant becomes an autobahn during lunch seven days a week when the dim sum carts come careening out, their drivers dodging giant tanks full of fish, clusters of tables and quick-footed waiters clearing plates and refilling beverages.

Customers wave the carts in like taxis, choosing among the 60-plus items offered. Some ask for explanation; others just point and say, "Bring it on."

Here are some hints: Chow fun noodles, Chinese broccoli, pork siu mai and baked barbecue pork buns can provoke drooling. Any of the dumplings stuffed with meat or seafood are sublime. Fried shrimp balls, sticky rice in lotus leaf, stuffed eggplant and turnip cakes are heavenly, too.

We've sampled in San Francisco, New York, even China -- and C-Fu is definitely sum-thing special.

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