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Spice Camp

Downtown San Jose's attractive Shalimar Indian Restaurant curries our favor

By Christina Waters

LIFE-GIVING papadam crisps arrived the minute we took our seats last week at the sparkling mint-green dining palace that is Shalimar Indian Restaurant. Transcending its location, a block from both the San Jose Museum of Art and the Greyhound station, this appealing slice of Mother India offers terrific curries, biryanis and chutneys served with intelligence and friendliness. Oh, and the prices are right in line with the place's middle-of-the-road location.

Terri and I were overheated and underfed when we started sipping a chilled house chardonnay ($4.75) and an even more chilled Indian Eagle beer ($3). Pastel walls and rich red carpeting make Shalimar a visual delight, all illuminated by crystal chandeliers and wall sconces. Mirrored tapestries adorn a variety of artful niches--a pretty place in which to feast on subcontinent seasonings.

Along with the addictive paper-thin papadams came two chutneys, one an aggressive mint and cilantro number and the other a tamarind creation spiked with chiles. After tiny cups of a light lentil soup, a generous sampler plate filled with vegetable appetizers arrived ($9.95), and we began making friends with some of the best fried food I've tasted since a drive through the deep South 10 years ago.

Bite-sized and crunchy, the vegetable kebab, filled with soft hummus and crunchy carrots, was our favorite. But we also attacked a few of the delicious cheese cubes, as well as creamy spinach and onion pakoras shaped like miniature driftwood. Terri also pointed out that for $13.95 per person, a thali dinner can be ordered, which includes a range of northern Indian hits, from pakoras through tandoori to rice puddings. Next time.

Our entrees upped the spiciness factor, but only to the "medium" point, as we'd requested. In retrospect, I should have asked for "medium-to-spicy," since I really could have used at least one dish that took the top of my head off. But that's just me. Small copper bowls of aloo dum ($9.95), shrimp curry ($13.95) and a giant serving of chicken biryani ($10.95) soon arrived, filling the table with a sensorama of fabulous spices. Cardamom, garlic, cinnamon, chiles, cloves, black pepper, mint--Indian cookery is a feast for the senses even before a bite is consumed.

At this point, the meal's intrigue deepened. The delightfully named aloo dum (aloo = potato) turned out to be an inventive stew focusing on huge potatoes that had each been stuffed with cheese and parsley and then simmered long in spices, tomatoes and garlic. Tearing bits of very garlicky nan bread ($4), we dipped some into a euphoric curry containing huge moist shrimp, raisins and tomatoes along with its mélange of cinnamon and pepper spices.

A lovely bowl of turmeric-tinted rice also accompanied the meal, flecked with peas and caraway seeds. Cloves, cinnamon, pepper, nutmeg, cilantro and cumin, plus a goodly hit of chile peppers, greeted our mouths with each forkful of a plush biryani featuring spice-marinated chicken and garbanzos in rice. Cooling minty yogurt raita ($4) moderated the heat, but as previously mentioned, I welcomed the firepower.

So utterly voluptuous was this meal, every flavor harmonizing in some archetypal way with every other one, that Terri and I exercised little in the way of dining restraint. In fact, we stuffed ourselves shamelessly. Even so, there was tons of delicious curry, biryani and that wildly compelling potato stew left over to create memorable meals the next day.

Our server wisely acknowledged our dilemma. We loved the Shalimar food, but had no room left to sample desserts like mango mousse. He brought us each a tiny sample of the rice pudding, which we somehow managed to inhale. It was almost a semisweet rice soup, so creamy and liquid was its composition. Ancient cuisines know what they're doing. And a meal of spicy Indian food comes to its logical close with a bit of something sweet. Shalimar should be your next downtown destination.

Shalimar Indian Restaurant
Address: 167 W. San Fernando St., San Jose
Phone: 408.971.2200
Hours: Lunch buffet 11am-2:30pm Mon-Sat, 'til 3pm on Sun; dinner nightly 5-10pm
Cuisine: Indian

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From the May 29-June 4, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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