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Good news: Great Indian food at Northgate.

MASALA OF INDIA

539B Northgate Way, 417-1118 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Mon.-Sat.; 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Sun. AE, DC, MC, V / beer and wine IF THE ANNUAL returning of the Christmas gifts takes you to Northgate, you may regard the cardboard-pizza emporiums and greasy taco franchises and Target corn dogs with something akin to despair. Fear not; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy in the New Year. For unto you is available up this way a savor that is, well, not quite Christ the Lord, but a pretty damn serviceable plate of beef Jalfraizi. For three years, Masala of India has been serving curries and tandooris and kormas and vindaloos across Northgate Way from the fluorescent glow of Best Buy, which, as it turns out, evokes Masala of India with some acuity. Both are oversized and undistinguished when viewed from the sidewalk. Both are relatively easy on the budget. And both deliver no-frills versions of exactly what you expect. If, that is, in Masala's case you're expecting harmonious versions of India's bewitching stews and sauces. Take the lamb boti masala ($10.95), a bathtub of lamb chunks lolling in a creamy stew deepened with all the mysteries of the Orient: the coriander and cardamom, caraway and cloves that, when blended with about a zillion other spices, become that essential Indian blend, masala. Or the vegetable korma ($9.95), a sweetish curry built on onion pur饬 ground nuts, and yogurt with, in this version, nicely ragged chunks of carrots, potatoes, and squash. Over fluffy basmati rice, flecked with cilantro and spotlit with saffron, the korma is complex and spicy without the sting of heat—a welcome bit of intrigue for the taste buds. Not to say Masala shies away from fire. Entr饳 are ordered mild, medium, hot, or extra hot, the second level of which served this diner on the chicken curry ($9.95) with the right blend of savor and pow. (Another diner, insufficiently impressed on a previous visit with the hot designation, ordered extra hot and had to bolt into the powder room for several rounds with a box of Kleenex.) This curry is a deep concoction, full of tomato flavor laced with pepper and bursts of ginger. The butter chicken ($10.95) is likewise skillful, with a rich sauce that's lush with cream. The cubed chicken remains tender despite a pass through the tandoori oven on the way to the butter—often a foray of doom. A plate of chicken biryani ($9.95) also features sumptuously moist meat, here in a flavor feast with plenty of cilantro amid a marshy green garden of herb-saturated basmati. THE PERFECT CHICKEN is no anomaly: Masala of India knows a thing or two about cooking meat. The highest proof of this is found on the tandoori section of the menu, with chicken, lamb, fish, and shrimp among the foods cooked to a charry shade of neon coral in the North Indian clay oven. The mixed grill ($14.95) turns out to be the best choice for promiscuous feeders, who get generous hanks of marinated chicken, a kebab of fragrant lamb, impossibly succulent fish, and really disappointing shrimp. Heaped up with grilled onions and bell peppers and served alongside a bowl of steaming basmati, this plate was amply satisfying notwithstanding the tough crustaceans. There are a few other missteps. Vegetable samosas ($2.95) are two doughy pastry pockets stuffed with a well-seasoned but chalky paste of potatoes and peas. The aloo tikki ($3.95), also on the appetizer menu, is leagues better. A mashed potato-vegetable patty is lit from within by a blend of savory spices, then tangy sauces of mint, tamarind, and yogurt are latticed on top and pooled around the sides. This beautiful, unusual dish is a feat of like-minded flavors and contrasting textures, and a steal for the price. In the bread section, note that the onion kulcha ($2.95) is far preferable to the naan; this will disappoint fans of the puffy flatbread who see that the menu lists six varieties, including mint, chicken, and garlic. The plain naan ($1.50), cut into wedges and lightly glistening with butter, is too dry. Even the paneer naan ($2.95), scattered with minced cheese, is too dry. The kulcha, by contrast, stuffed with saut饤 onions, has no such problem. In Masala's big room, decorated to fancy ethnic restaurant specifications circa 1971, servers are willing but at times overburdened; you may wait for your water. You won't mind much, particularly when you get your reasonable bill and walk out into the fluorescent night burdened with boxes and boxes of leftovers. krobinson@seattleweekly.com

 
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