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Indian Summer 

The exotic delights of a new neighborhood spot

Some new restaurants have the ability to address neighborhood needs in such a manner that they seem to have always been there. The center of Charlotte, and by that I mean downtown to the original burbs, has lacked certain ethnic restaurants, notably Indian. But now the smell of cardamom, cinnamon, and cumin greet you at Maharani Indian Cuisine on Kings Drive in the spot formerly occupied by Mama Ricotta's (which moved down the street).

Owner Amandeep Singh, a native of New Delhi who also has two northern Indian restaurants in Germany, has a large extended family in the Charlotte area and opened his latest endeavor last June with his co-owner and cousin Inderpal Singh. Maharani, or queen, is also the name of Singh's German restaurants. He noted the name was a "good fit" since Charlotte is known as the Queen City.

Indian cuisine is typically categorized by the points of a compass though many dishes are found throughout the country. In a nutshell, Northern Indian cuisine was influenced by Persian and Afghan cuisines and thus features biryanis (meat-based pilafs), spicy kormas (braised meats in creamy sauces), kuftas (spicy meatballs), kabobs, and wheat breads. Southern Indian cuisine is rice based and has such dishes as dosas, which are rice pancakes stuffed with potatoes and vegetables, idlis, and searingly hot vindaloo curries. Rice and fish are staples of Eastern cuisine and the original Western Indian cuisine was principally vegetarian, based on the foods of the Marwari community. Spices, either dried or fresh, whole or ground, roasted or raw, as well as herbs, remain integral to all Indian cuisine. Basil, coriander, mint, and parsley team with fenugreek, coconut, garlic, ginger, mustard seeds, chilies, saffron and tamarind to produce flavorful dishes.

Although Rogan Josh sounds more like a daytime soap opera character than an entree, it is a dish indicative of Northern Indian cuisine, the kind of cuisine featured at Maharani. The chef here trained in one of the large hotels in New Delhi.

The element of discovery and the melange of exotic spice aromas are what draw me to Indian restaurants, and I was eager to discover what Maharani had to offer. Decoratively, the 85-seat Maharani has a hybrid appeal. The dining room is delineated by metallic architectural features while the walls bear bright Indian prints depicting love and marriage ceremonies.

Soon after we arrived, a complimentary basket of crisp lentil wafers was delivered to the table. I decided to forgo ordering an appetizer to indulge myself in the delights of naan. Nothing indicates the quality of an Indian restaurant more than fresh, slapped-up-against-the-sides-of-the-tandoor oven wall hot naan. The basket of assorted breads had wonderful naan, very garlicky naan, and Roti, a whole wheat flour bread served with an unfussy raita.

Maharani has a brief wine list, but icy water or beer is a good choice with this cuisine. Kingfisher lager, a light gold Indian beer known for its taste and slogan "Most thrilling chilled!" is also an exceptional choice.

Entrees can be spice tempered according to taste. An excellent dish is the Seekh Kebab entree, skewers of spicy ground lamb cooked in the tandoor, which arrived sizzling at the table. The Murg Tikka Masala was an impressively tender boneless chicken, grilled in the tandoor before being plunged into a vigorously seasoned pool of almonds, cashews, and cream. Our table also wolfed down the Bombay Aloo, India's take on home fries awash in mellow spices. If you like chutney, try the freshly made mango chutney with large slices of fruit.

Last June Marahani experienced a misstep after opening when the restaurant received negative publicity from a "bottom score" for a sanitation report by Mecklenburg County. The county cited the restaurant for having the food on the lunch buffet table "out of temp" among other notations. The original score of 85.5 on June 27 became a 94.5 upon reinspection July 16.

But now Singh is more in step. His guests seem to know each other and the atmosphere is at once that of a neighborhood place and an exotic one. Something I pondered as I reentered the warm Charlotte evening and gazed at the center city skyline while savoring an aromatic fennel seed.

Maharani Indian Cuisine 901 South Kings Drive. 704-370-2455. Hours for lunch buffet are 11:30am until 2:30pm Monday through Friday, Saturday and Sunday noon until 3pm; dinner 5pm until 10pm Sunday through Thursday, 5pm until 11pm Friday and Saturday. AmEx, Visa, MC, Dis.

Tidbits Rick's Mediterranean is hosting the following dinners this month: Casablanca Night on September 11 celebrating the food and culture of Morocco (belly dancing included); Greek Night September 18; Turkish Night on September 25 (Rick's mother will cook traditional dishes); and French Night on October 2. Every Monday is Italian Night with all you can eat pizza, pasta and salad for $11.99. For reservations or more information about these menus, call 704-366-6887.

Bonefish Grill, a Tampa Bay area-based restaurant, will debut in Matthews on September 9. This 6500 square foot, 238-seat spot is located at 10056 E. Independence Boulevard. On the menu are mussels and bacon wrapped scallop appetizers, and chicken, pork, lobster, and steak entrees. But the big show is the grilled (over a oak-burning grill) fin fish specialties such as Gulf grouper, Atlantic salmon, Ahi Tuna, Chilean sea bass, and mahi mahi. Entrees range from $13 to $17. Hours are 4pm until 10:30pm Monday through Thursday, until 11:30pm on Friday and Saturday, and 4pm until 10pm on Sunday. This is their ninth location and the first in the Carolinas. 704-845-8001.

Also coming from Tampa is the franchise Beef O'Brady's, to open at 8418-A Park Road in the Quail Corners Shopping Center.

Capital Grille has won the DiRoNA (Distinguished Restaurants of North America) award. Capital Grill is owned by RARE Hospitality International which owns 166 Longhorn Steakhouses, 20 Bugaboo Creek Steak House restaurants, and 15 Capital Grille restaurants.

Southend Brewery & Smokehouse is hosting a Panther pep rally on Saturday, September 7, 9pm until 1:30am. Admission is a $10 donation to benefit Operation Smile, a charity that raises money to repair facial deformities in children from Third World countries. 704-358-4677.

Do you have a restaurant tip, compliment, complaint? Do you know of a restaurant which 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? Fax this information, at least 12 days in advance of event date, to Tidbits: 704-944-3605, or leave voice mail: 704-522-8334, ext. 136.

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