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Not afraid of flavor at Spice South Indian Cuisine 

Restaurateur makes Indian cuisine accessible

Restaurateur Raghav Banaru has a bold vision for his restaurants: Make Indian cuisine as popular here in Charlotte as it is in other English-speaking places such as the U.K. or South Africa. His plan is to reach out to "all demographics and ages." Will the city embrace the big flavors of Indian cuisine beyond the safe havens for that cuisine?

Currently, Banaru has restaurants in three locations: Spice Cafe in the University area, Spice Bites Uptown on North Tryon, and South Spice off Ardrey Kell in south Charlotte. Soon, he will open Spice Bakes, an Indian bakery with "100 percent vegetarian bake goods" and chaat shop, at all three locations. The Uptown store already has some bakery items.

Banaru is originally from southern India, and his urbane 80-seat South Spice focuses on south Indian (vegetarian) and other Indian cuisines. Although Banaru is attempting to get Charlotteans to stop equating Indian cuisine with characterless curries and cheap food, South Spice does offer a buffet line at lunch.

The interior here is dark and contemplative and would appear more inviting if the pendants over the tables were lit. A small bar serves a handful of Indian beers and a small list of wines and the dining room has some booths, but more tables. The key problem of the room, however, is multiple entrances. Customers can access the dining room from two sides. The more popular one opens directly into the main dining room, and without a barrier, the cold blasts nearby tables each time customers enter or exit. Avoid these tables. Service is an issue here as well: Attention was not paid to the table.

But what is good at Spice South is the food. The menu headlines with the requisite notes: tandoor, chicken, seafood, lamb, goat, vegetables, and rice. Banaru is not afraid to bring on spices and heat in a dish. In fact, the kitchen will err on the side of spice unless instructed otherwise.

The kitchen's appetizer sampler plate offers spunky fritters with the crispy ground lamb and pea samosa a standout. The breads — naans, roti, paratha, and kulcha — are India's endearing culinary gifts to the world and when eaten hot, dipped into a heady perfumed gravy, could be the main event. Yet the entrées are the strength of this kitchen. Cuts of grilled lamb bathe unabashedly in a luxuriating piquant moghlai pool of whole spices, curry leaves and tomatoes. More dazzling is the chicken tandoori, still sizzling when it arrives at the table fajita-style and steaming from its quickly heated bed of iceberg lettuce. Though the meat is strictly dark, this tandoor is, nevertheless, a fine heart rendition of familiar fare.

On the south India side of the menu are many pleasures, too. The delicately articulated curls of rice crepe hug a lush potato interior. This table-filling dosa is sided with a trio of sauces, including a spicy sambar. Entrée prices range from $8 for many vegetarian dishes to $20 for lamb chops cooked in the tandoor.

In addition to short wine and beer rosters are mango and sweet lassis, teas, and coffees. Desserts are a bit of a letdown, but the fried doughnut holes in honey syrup are perfectly delightful.

Spice South Indian Cuisine

8145 Ardrey Kell, 704-246-6538. Lunch Hours: Tuesday to Friday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Dinner hours: Tuesday to Thursday 5:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. Closed Monday. Delivery.

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