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No Naan Sense

There must be an international siren song calling from the building next to the Circle K at 16th Street and Campbell. This unassuming little box lures in ethnic restaurants one after the other -- most recently it was home to a spectacularly flawed Russian eatery, followed by a short-lived Chinese...
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There must be an international siren song calling from the building next to the Circle K at 16th Street and Campbell. This unassuming little box lures in ethnic restaurants one after the other -- most recently it was home to a spectacularly flawed Russian eatery, followed by a short-lived Chinese buffet. Then, a few months ago, it rose Phoenix-style from the ashes again, this time as a shop featuring the cuisine of northern India.

As Flavors of India, the place has finally hit its mark. While not offering the most exciting Indian cuisine in town, this restaurant serves up consistently good, remarkably fresh and first-timer friendly food. Add to that a comfortable, refreshingly un-kitschy atmosphere and some of the most charming service to be found anywhere, and Flavors of India seems poised for a long, successful future.

Indian food is one of the most complex cuisines in the world, not a surprising fact considering that its recipes reflect the diversity of a billion people who practice five major faiths, speak more than two dozen languages (with thousands of dialects) and live in 30 ethnically distinct states. Most Americans are familiar with dishes of the northern region, specifically the state of Punjab, home of such dishes as dal, naan, biryani, chicken tikka and tandoori.

Flavors of India doesn't disappoint in its classic presentation, with an extensive menu of more than 100 traditional dishes. But it does fall short with the most important element that unifies eclectic Indian cuisine: a love of dramatic spices. Rather than a seductive perfume, spices here tend to be splashed on like a delicate cologne. The result: food that satisfies, but some dishes that don't sparkle as well as they could.

On the upside, it's not a fatal flaw. While dishes come from the kitchen designed to appeal to white-bread palates, Chef Channi Singh is eager to please (frantic, in fact, following me to the cash register and imploring me to tell him if lunch was good). He will gladly adjust the spices to any desired level. For extra heat, mix-ins are a do-it-yourself affair, including a take-no-prisoners spicy mint chutney and tongue-twitchingly hot marinated pickles. Tip for true Indian aficionados: Go for the gusto -- even medium dishes show up mild.

Custom creations are no challenge, since everything at Flavors of India is made from scratch, including homemade bread and dairy dishes. Plates take a little longer to go from order pad to table, but the wait is worth it when we cash in on sumptuously fresh and greaseless aloo tikki. The appetizer doesn't offer much in quantity, just three marshmallow-size croquettes atop marinated cucumber, red onion and iceberg, but it resonates with good, honest flavor. Herbed potato cutlets are melded with Indian-style cheese and chiles, then fried to a golden edge. Slathered with fiery mint chutney, they're highly addictive little nibbles.

Paneer pakora is hard to pass up, bringing a tidy pile of fuchsia-colored, cottage cheese-stuffed nubbins deep-fried and tossed over salad. They're light and crisp, taking on a delightful cranberry tone when dipped into a mildly sweet tamarind chutney.

Indian cuisine showcases the versatility of vegetarianism, proving that healthful eating need not be a chore, and some of the best dishes at Flavors of India are meatless. Vegetables are so prominent that menu listings celebrate their status -- soups are either "vegetable" or "non-vegetable" (the vegetable and chicken bowl); entrees include "vegetarian dishes" and "non-vegetarian dishes."

How good are these plates? A departing guest grabs my arm, a crazed delight in his eyes, and insists that I try the aloo gobi masala. His is a meatless life, he whispers conspiratorially, and if ever he doubts his path, this dish reconfirms his religion. I can see why -- the soft, slow-simmered chunks of potato and cauliflower blossom under a bright-yellow sauce kissed with exotic spices. Chana masala also invites conversion in a rejoiceful union of slightly crunchy chickpeas, onion, tomato and potato in a top-of-tongue burning spicy sauce. Dal maharani delights, too, crafting a luscious, mustard-colored wet purée of yellow lentils, garlic, tomato and onions.

This is not your everyday eggplant, either, but bengan bharta, with eggplant fire-roasted to a soothing pulp and blended with onions and green peas. Even better is a hearty aloo, chole and paneer, combining potatoes, chickpeas and Indian-style cheese with onions and tomatoes.

Flavors of India's version of raita is more soup than salad, but it's wickedly wonderful. Smooth, chilled, unsweetened yogurt floats with slivers of cucumbers and tomato, begging to be slurped through a straw but more effectively consumed when dipped with fresh-grilled naan (leavened flour bread baked in a clay oven). It takes naan studded with chunks of real garlic to stand up to another soupy bliss: sag lamb. This model is fairly low-key in spicing, but sturdy and comforting thanks to a glorious mop of fresh spinach enveloping chunks of chewy meat (think Gerber for grown-ups).

Any of the eatery's dozen types of bread is the perfect partner to chicken curry, sopping up the mellow beige sauce studded with tiny lentils and kidney beans (fans of Indian cuisine will want to order this dish extra spicy). Chicken makhni benefits from added heat, imparting impact to the otherwise tame clay-oven poultry simmered in a gossamer butter sauce accented with fresh tomato and onions.

Tandoor dishes are a specialty of the northern regions, and Flavors of India sends out a variety of the flamed plates -- chicken, shrimp, lamb, fish, cheese and vegetables. White-meat bird is pretty lifeless, arriving in fat chunks on the bone, salty and nestled with al dente tomato and onion. Barah kebab packs more punch, with its tender lamb marinated in yogurt and spices.

Another cornerstone of Indian cuisine is rice, and chef Singh offers seven options. Basmati pulao is a fine choice, the white, aromatic rice studded with green peas and onion. It's a nice base when blended with a chef's special of bay shrimp cloaked in orange-colored vegetable gravy with al dente bell peppers and onion. But the lamb biryani is sleepy, with not enough spices and seasonings to support the meat tossed with saffron and nuts.

A full bar beckons with selections like clean, light-flavored Taj Mahal beer, but a mango shake is a must. Served in a parfait glass over ice, the creamy, fruity concoction is lovely, not too sweet, and bursting with character.

In a refreshing change, Flavors of India strikes a relaxing note with its decor. No Pier 1 explosion here, instead featuring classy red tablecloths, elegant fabric chairs and booths, and understated accents of glittering mirrors and carved urns. Dishes come to the table in clever metal pots. And a daily lunch buffet offers value, without the typical cafeteria-style feel. Hot selections are presented in pretty copper tureens; cold dishes are arranged on oversize platters with thoughtfully arranged vegetable garnishes.

A contender for the Valley's most exotic, authentic Indian food? Until the kitchen sparks up the spicing, Flavors of India isn't in that league. But for quiet, soul-satisfying sustenance, it's certainly a welcome addition to the neighborhood.

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