Land of the Garlic Naan

So you remember Carla's and my little set-to over that Indian place she was desperate to go to in Hillcrest? Twice in two weeks, we turned up too late to get in on the cheap lunch buffet.

But today -- sound the trumpets! -- we make it up here at -- yay! -- a quarter of two. A good start on my resolution for '06 to, like, stop being late for everything.

"Yes, except the buffet's been out since 11," says Carla from her wheelchair. "All they'll have will be heat-curled scraps and leftovers."

We're looking at this cream-bricked '40s building. Right next door to Tapas Picasso, the India Princess is an elegant, varnished wood-and-glass frontage, with a big ol' orange sandwich board advertising their "Daily Lunch Buffet," 20 items for $8.95. We head on in. The entrance hallway is interesting, a long gold-and-red passage, like the neck of a bottle. I roll Carla along, past a statue. A god with an elephant's head.

"Ah," says Carla. "Lord Ganesh, the god who removes obstacles. That's good. See what he's riding?"

I frankly don't.

"A mouse. He's the god of success but humble enough to ride a mouse. How can you not love him?"

Did I mention? Carla has this thing about India. Its myths, its "rainbow of religions," its Bollywood movies that she watches on AZN, and above all its food. So, hey, if she thinks this is good, I'll take her word for it.

Inside is, well, classy. Cream cloth-covered tables, cloth napkins, little vases with fresh roses or carnations, teak chairs that look like giant cellos, maroon carpet, rosewood-looking columns, and a bar with upside-down glasses hanging everywhere, plus silver objets d'art, as Carla calls them, on the wall in silver frames. Sitars, fans for royalty, water-sprinklers for maharajas...a little intimidating for a country boy like moi.

"Ganbuli," explains the gent who comes up. Jesse -- Jesse Singh. He's the owner. "Ganbuli is what we call those scented water sprinklers."

His manager, Avish, brings waters, flops open the napkins, and takes orders for iced teas ($1.95 each, endless refills). He asks if we want plain or garlic naan, the bread that's served here (we take one of each). The teas come in sophisticated glasses. I mean, this is not Jack in the Box.

Then, when we start rolling around the 20-piece buffet, Avish insists on helping Carla out. He points out the sauces, like orange-colored onion pickle, green mint chutney, dark tamarind chutney, and creamy raita, the yogurty carrot-cucumber-tomato sauce you can use to cool your burning tongue after too much curry.

I grab some pakoras (vegetable fritters); keema mutter, minced lamb curry with spices and peas; chicken tikki masala, cooked in a tomato sauce; and a veggie dish called navratan korma (veggies in a cream sauce with nuts). And lots of yellow biryani rice with veggies, nuts, and raisins in it, and a chicken soup, just because it's there.

Phew. Carla made a beeline for the tandoori chicken, and then some palak paneer, spinach creamed with cottage cheese; some dal (yellow lentils); a vegetable korma; and I don't know what-all else.

"This is northern Indian cooking," says Avish. "Curries, wheat-based. You wouldn't see any of this where I come from, further south, Goa."

Huh. I remember that Goa's that little bite out of India's west coast that used to be a Portuguese colony. Avish says people have heat in their food there that would kinda scalp your average American.

"Even in Delhi, where I come from, the food would be hotter -- and oilier," says Jesse.

Whatever, I go for it, big time. That spinach is dee-lish. The chicken tikki, beautiful strong taste. The deep-fried pakoras dip wickedly into the tamarind chutney.

"Tamarind chutney has that sweet-sour quality," says Avish. "It's like a vinegar, but better for us Indians than vinegar, which is bad for the bones."

'Course what I'm waiting for is the word from that mouse-riding elephant-god admirer, Ms. Carla. She's been heads-down into her bright red chicken tandoori. She gnaws at the leg, looks up, thinking. Now she puts the bone down. "That's the test," she says. "You get a chewy, leathery tandoori chicken, you know you're at the tail end of a long day. But here we are, tail end of lunch, and this is so tender and tasty and fresh, it falls off the bone. This is da bomb, I'll tell you."

"Good, huh?" I say.

Then we're talking to Jesse again. Turns out he came to the States 11 years ago. Started working in a Jack in the Box. "This was the dream of my father, to come to America and open a good Indian restaurant," he says. "Unfortunately, he died before he could. So I am carrying out his dream for him."

Carla and I keep going back for more. And quick, 'cause that 2:30 cut-off hour's rushing up on us. But you know what I love most? The garlic naan. Dipping it in everything. Every now and then you crunch a fennel seed. Nirvana!

We sneak in a couple of dilli ki mithai -- desserts -- too. Like, golden dough balls deep-fried in a sugar syrup, gulab juman, and rasmalai, "sponges" of cottage cheese in a bowl of sweetened reduced milk. It's mild, but after the crazy procession of tastes, it cleans your mouth out beautifully.

"Methinks the good Ganesh is smiling down on us," Carla says as we roll out.

"Methinks I feel sorry for the mouse," I say.

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