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Indian Spice Trail 

Currying favor on Independence Boulevard

For the past 50 years, India's primary cultural export had been spiritualism and yoga, both of which have recently enjoyed a resurgence in popularity. But in the last five of those 50 years, Asian Indian culture has become the super nova streaking across the western sky. This may be due, in part, to the increasing Asian Indian population in the US, which, according to the 2000 census, has more than doubled since 1990 to 1.7 million.

In addition, Americans seem to have wholeheartedly embraced the over-the-top Bollywood-style film industry and its subsequent inspired fashions and home furnishings. A new musical, Bombay Dreams is shakalaka-ing "em up in New York; that musical, in an odd convergence, stars Madhur Jaffrey, who is also a James Beard cookbook winner and the woman perhaps best known for introducing Asian Indian food to the western world.

Charlotte's Independence Boulevard, which has two nearby Hindu temples, has been home to Indian restaurants for more than two decades and now has another. Namaste India Bar and Restaurant was created when Nick Naik split his Brazas Brazilian Grill in half. Naik, an East African of Indian descent, bought Brazas two years ago from its Brazilian founder, but subsequently decided to divide the space into two distinct restaurants, though they share a kitchen and restrooms. Since Brazas is known for its meat, and Indian restaurants are known for attracting many vegetarians, was it a challenge to bring together both restaurants under the same roof?

"That was a risk I needed to take," explained Naik. "By dividing the restaurants I created two 100-seat spaces. I was very hesitant at first; the aroma of both cuisines can be strong. But no one has complained. The kitchen is divided. I have chefs for the Brazilian food and on the Indian side I have a curry chef and a tandoori chef and we can make pure vegetarian food as well," reported Naik. Before moving to Charlotte, Naik owned an Indian restaurant in Nottingham, England, just on the outskirts of Sherwood Forest. He noted that Indian cuisine is the most popular cuisine in England.

"Namaste" means both hello and goodbye and is an honored greeting. The entrance for the restaurant faces Independence Boulevard, while the Brazas side can be seen through the glass wall of Namaste's private room. Brazas, with its own entrance, still contains a mural of the beaches at Ipanema and features a buffet. Brazas also contains the bar area for both restaurants. A glassed-in "control-type" room equipped with computer monitors has access to both Brazas and Namaste.

Namaste is painted light green and white and sports velvet paintings of Indian scenes. A back room is dedicated to the lunch buffet; tables are set with linen and stainless steel. The stainless steel water cups allow the water to stay cool. The music is not traditional Indian, but rather a jazzy techno remix. The menu offers dozens of selections, primarily northern Indian, made easier to pick while munching on the delicate pappadams dipped into bowls of tamarind, mint, and mango sauces.

Though there are lightly seasoned pakoras, the most appealing beginnings on Namaste's menu are the jeera and samosas. Fraqrant morsels of chicken jeera are enhanced by cumin seeds and ginger while the trio of crispy classic samosas are warmly comforting. Our waiter seemed surprised we wanted bread as an appetizer. What he doesn't know is that Indian bread can be the beginning, middle, and end of a meal for me. Here we had Palak Kulcha stuffed with spinach and herbs as a starter, but saved an order of roti and naan to scoop up the sauces from the entrees.

When a restaurant imports a clay oven with an open charcoal flame from India and a chef from a five-star Nepal resort to man it, you gotta have tandoori. The lamb tikka hasina (which could also be known as a lamb fajita) proved a formidable choice. The iron skillet laden with lamb, peppers, and onions arrives hot and sizzling. Even after briskly spritzing the meat with lemon, the taste of the grill is well defined. Another entree, the chicken tikka masala, was equally lush and vibrant with its complex, but not over fussy base. The vegetable jalfrazi jacks up the flavors of peppers, onions, carrots with a bracing hit of spices and popped cumin seeds. To end the meal, opt for the handmade ice cream, or kulfi, with a hint of cardamom.

At lunch Namaste offers a 20-item buffet for $7.95 weekdays, $9.95 weekends when additional meats and desserts are made. Dinner entrees range from $8.95 to $16.95.

Naik has brought a bit of his heritage to Charlotte. He said his food is slightly Anglicized to reflect his time in England, which is a good thing for the UK expats living here. Indian immigrants are known for bringing ingredients and techniques to new places and creating delicious hybrids. And who knows what will happen when the Brazilian and Indian chefs start talking. It's all good for Charlotte gourmands, of course, and proves once again that it's a small world after all.

Eaters' Digest

Now closed Wing Ranch, 2200 Park Road in Dilworth, Champps Americana, 1601 Woodlawn, and Indian Palace, 4515 Independence Boulevard.Have a restaurant tip, compliment, complaint? Do you know of a restaurant that has opened, closed, or should be reviewed? Does your restaurant or shop have news, menu changes, new additions to staff or building, upcoming cuisine or wine events? Note: We need events at least 12 days in advance. Fax information to Eaters' Digest: 704-944-3605, or leave voice mail: 704-522-8334, ext. 136. To contact Tricia via email: tricia.childress@creativeloafing.com

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