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Healthy And Palatable

New Year's resolution should include Indian restaurants

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In January, folks are gung ho about their annual dietary resolutions. Whether it's Atkins, South Beach, No White Food, or Weight Watchers, diet regiments have a nasty way of making their presence known. "I can't eat Italian. I'm off all pasta and tomatoes," one friend says. "No sushi for me, unless the chef will make it without rice." "I'll have a Chai Latte decaf with no sugar, honey, or milk." (Isn't that just called tea?)But if you're eschewing all diets and have decided to go the healthy lifestyle route, Indian restaurants are the place to offer meals that are not too heavy on meat, with appropriate portions of grains, vegetables and fruits. Additionally, if flavor had been missing in your last diet, Indian food will send you into olfactory overload.

India's rich regional culinary tapestry weaves threads of religious vegetarian traditions, Middle Eastern meat preparation, and influences from Portuguese, Persian and British colonists. Each addition contributes permutations and a range of flavors. Not all Indian restaurants in town offer the same regional cuisine. Here are some of my favorites:

Owner Tulsi Bhandari is a native of Nepal, and his Situl offers dishes from Northern India and Nepal. Bhandari explains that Nepali dishes are "like Chinese and Thai food mixed with Indian." Tandoori, or Indian barbecue, is the classic cooking method in northern India's Punjab region and Situl has a clay oven. What's good here? Go here for the aloo tikki, chicken pakoras, skewers of ground lamb, tandoori chicken, and baingan bhartha -- roasted eggplant with garlic and spices.Situl, 540 Brandywine Road behind Park Road Shopping Center, 704-523-0037.

The cuisine featured at Woodlands is Southern India, where vegetarian dishes such as idlis, vadas, sambars and rasams reign. You shouldn't miss the Mysore Bonda, a lentil dumpling; Vegetable Samosa; the spectacular Paper Masala Dosai, a wondrous two foot long thin rice crepe loosely wrapped around a spicy mix of potatoes, onions and nuts; and the Pullav, a rice dish full of carrots, peas, and bits of dried fruits.Woodlands Pure Vegetarian South Indian Cuisine, 7128-A Albemarle Road, 704-569-9193.At Udipi, another southern Indian vegetarian restaurant, Dosas seem to be the heart of the menu and ordering one is a must. Dozens of possibilities exist for these oversized fermented rice or lentil flour crepes. Choose from plain masala potatoes, butter or ghee to the more exotic with spinach, chilies and cheese, chutney and vegetables, or the house specialty of bananas. Or try the Uthappams, or pancakes, which are also offered in a dozen or so configurations.Udipi Pure Vegetarian Cuisine, 9510 University City Boulevard, 704-549-0600.

Typically, meats grilled in the tandoor clay oven are dry, which is not a result of the cooking process but a preference since dripping juices are strictly forbidden in Indian culture. At Bombay Cuisine, owner Bhuphen Engineer's history with Boston Chicken comes in handy. He marinates his chicken twice. This difference makes a rich and complex Chicken Tikka Masala. Equally tender are the sizzling grilled lamb cubes flavored with the one-two punch of ginger and garlic. Or try the exceptional Dhum Briyani, a pot of rice infused with a torrent of spices, slivers of chili peppers, tomatoes, nuts and succulent chucks of chicken, all sealed beneath a bread topping.Bombay Cuisine, 230 East W.T. Harris Boulevard, 704-503-5558.

Before moving to Charlotte, Nick Naik owned an Indian restaurant in Nottingham (as in the Sheriff of), England; thus, he offers "slightly Anglicized" Indian cuisine at Namaste. Try the flavorful lamb tikka hasina or the vegetarian jalfrazi, packed with the flavors of peppers, onions, carrots and a bracing hit of spices and popped cumin seeds.Namaste India Bar & Restaurant, 34508 East Independence Boulevard, 704-568-7979.

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