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Photograph by Charlie Nucci

Sunny Embrace: The spicy entrees at Marigold are especially inviting on a chilly day.

Spice Island

Wedged into a prime slot on University Avenue, Marigold provides the spice-deprived with inexpensive Indian specialties

By Christina Waters

IT WAS ONE of those dark and stormy nights that call for extra culinary warmth--warmth that can only be provided by the extravagant spices of Indian cooking. Happily, exactly the right port in a storm beckoned to us a few doors down from Borders in the midst of University Avenue: Marigold Indian Cuisine, for half a year the hot spot for penny-wise Palo Altans in need of a spice fix.

Carmella and I are big on spices, and we include in that rather large category the delicate spices and floral notes available in gewürztraminer; in particular, the one available at the rock-bottom price of $22, made by Fetzer and prominent on the Marigold libations list. The world is divided squarely in half--those insisting upon Indian lager with their spicy food, and those desiring fruity white wine. Carmella and I fall rather too easily into the latter category, so we were quite happy munching on warm lentil papadams dipped into tangy tamarind sauce and swilling our ethereally complex white wine.

A pleasant, jazzy raga filled the atmosphere of the long, narrow restaurant, whose bright yellow walls are punctuated with bold original artworks. A very warm and attentive staff made sure we lacked for nothing, except perhaps a clue as to what to choose for dinner. Biryani, tandoori, vegetarian curry; so many dishes, so little corporeal space. But in the end, we dined our way logically from a giant wheel of garlic nan to tiny bowls of sweet rice pudding.

A huge basket in which our giant round flat bread languished arrived, fragrant with garlic. "Gandhi himself couldn't have resisted this," teased Carmella. "And he resisted six virgins." Carmella likes to remind me of the historical lineage of food metaphors. Well, whatever. The nan was delicious; dipped into the various sauces and chutneys on our table, it might have made a great meal all by itself, along with copious lashings of gewürztraminer, which does make a perfect companion with the spicy food.

Our other appetizer morsels of adobe-hued aloo pakoda ($4) were addictive if noticeably uncomplicated. Essentially mashed-potato balls that have been flattened and then briskly fried in a crisp gram flour, like fat coins, the pakodas were delicious when dredged in minty raita or sweet mango chutney. Our hands reached for these potato balls more often than was prudent--restraint is not one of our virtues, and especially not in Indian restaurants.

Marigold seems to have an eclectic and devoted clientele, which had filled up the place completely by the time our entrees arrived. Along with little bowls of white rice (which lacked the customary perfume of basmati), came more large plates, plus little brass bowls filled with very aromatic dishes. In one dish was my order of prawns in tomatoey ginger sauce, fairly spicy--enough to produce a satisfying sweat across our brows ($13.95). This was a highly satisfying mélange of spices and chiles that, again, worked well with the chewy soft bread.

Carmella's order of saag paneer ($8.95) proved a classic version of this vegetarian specialty. A delicious stew of spinach studded with cubes of farmer's cheese, something like a cross between tofu and cottage cheese, the dish offered some haunting background of spice, and also made a nice foil for the heat of the prawn and ginger dish.

When your lips, tongue and palate are all humming nicely from a dinner of spice-laden foods, nothing provides closure better than a sweet, creamy something. Our waitperson smiled, murmured "rice pudding" and produced two diminutive bowls. Sweet rice swam in cream rather than thickened pudding. But the effect was the same: lovely, light and just enough to make the point.

The sunny embrace of Marigold--and its atmosphere of well-made spice specialties--is welcoming on a chilly day. Just the sort of place that Gandhi might have frequented, in Carmella's opinion.

Marigold Indian Cuisine
Address: 448 University Ave., Palo Alto
Phone: 650.327.3455
Hours: Lunch 11am-2:30pm Mon-Fri; noon-3pm Sat-Sun; dinner 5-10pm Sun-Thu; 5-11pm Fri-Sat
Cuisine: Indian specialties
Price Range: Inexpensive

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From the December 25-31, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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