"Like a ballroom in a Moscow hotel," my friend insists between sips of lassi. "Really fancy, in an Eastern Bloc way." She's talking about Mirch Masala's interior, which is dominated by a many-tiered chandelier and raised lounge area empty but for a bartender casting glances at a blaring television. Tableware imprinted with Mirch Masala's red pepper logo seems fit for a more expensive eatery, but a line of gleaming buffet tables at the far end of the seating area reminds us that we're at a value-priced spot.
Here, lassi, lassi: Adding to Mirch Masala's gently swanky feel are its expansive menus that seem to offer limitless options. Those not familiar with Indian food may feel intimidated by page after description-free page of appetizer and entree items. There's no clue as to what intriguingly named dishes such as "chicken 65" may be. And at times, communication can be difficult with the attentive, gracious staff. Better to tell your server what you don't like (goat, perhaps, which is the center of eight entrees) and pick from the remaining selections. If our two meals are any indication, all the dishes are carefully cooked and satisfying. On both occasions, we were the only customers not part of an Indian family -- a good sign Mirch Masala's food isn't watered down for American palates. "Very spicy" means exactly that here, but refreshing, yogurt-based mango lassi ($1.95) cools sizzling taste buds, as does Kingfisher beer.
Flaming lips: A complimentary basketful of pappadam wafers opens our meal, served with a caddy of tamarind chutney and two chili sauces. Identical in color to red hot candies, the chicken lollipops ($7.95) are drumettes coated in red chili pepper and lightly battered, then deep-fried. They burn like the June sun and are as crispy and addictive as your favorite buffalo wings. A selection of pakora ($4.95) sounds promising until we discover our portion's been poached from the buffet line. The texture's off, but the battered and fried zucchini slices and whole peppers are so spicy we weep.
Korma chameleon: The main course is a stewy feast. A saucy combination of cashews, potatoes, peas, carrots, green beans and cauliflower, the Navrata korma ($7.95) is a mild, creamy vegetarian option. Yogurt adds tang and thickness to the coconut, cinnamon, clove and cardamom-infused chicken korma ($8.95), whose tender meat practically smokes with spiciness. Chicken tikka masala ($8.95) is a faithful rendition of a tandoori-style favorite. Pungent with garam masala and tomatoes, the curry is balanced with a splash of cream. Shrimp maharaja ($9.95) sparkles with bright tomato flavor, which contrasts with the sweet, yogurt-marinated shrimp. Butter naan ($1.95) comes in handy for wiping every last bit of delicious curry off the plates.
Rice Kheer ($1.95), a luscious rice pudding with the scent of rosewater, ends the meal on a delicate note. Kulfi ($1.95), a pistachio and rosewater ice cream, is fragrant, milky and studded with nuts.
Bellies full and cheeks flushed, we exited Mirch Masala into the bracing cold. We searched for our car keys on the pavement outside as two or three Indian families left the restaurant. They were elegantly attired, unlike us clad in jeans and sweaters. Mirch Masala's excellent cooking and decked-out atmosphere may make you feel as if you're having a big evening out, even though your tab is minimal indeed.