by Joel Smith & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & S & lt;/span & ome so-called ethnic restaurants go to great lengths to transport their clientele back to the mother country. Maybe you sit on the floor while you eat. Maybe the whole room is done up in colors and curtains, or the speakers pulsate with the rhythm of hand drums. And when you finish your meal, you walk outside and remember suddenly: Oh. I'm still in Spokane.

Top of India never lets you forget that you're lunching in the Valley. Big windows on the north side of the unassuming chalet-ish building look out on the steady pulse of traffic on Sprague Avenue. Inside, the lunch crowd sits in the kinds of chairs you'd likely find at a cartography conference, on carpet like a dentist's waiting room's. The white walls, with their wan pink trim, are unadorned except for the occasional framed (and crooked) painting of the Taj Mahal, or some Indian folk scene. Overhead, fluorescent lights glare.

But that's not the point here. Because unlike those flashy Indian restaurants that are all sitar and no saag, Top of India trades d & eacute;cor for flavor.

We'd heard about their lunch buffet from Zack, the ever-hungry Spokane County firefighter who seems to show up every time we go out for a lunch or pub grub review. His recommendation was a solid one -- all you can eat, 20 different items, $7.

He didn't wait to dig into it while Luke and I ordered from the menu. He brought back from a long heated table at one side of the room a plate nearly overflowing with food. Our forks descended on two different types of curry, a massive and sunburned leg of tandoori chicken, several broad slices of fried potato, a mushy lentil soup and a piece of naan, which is Indian flatbread.

In the meantime, appetizers began to arrive. One plate held two lamb somosas, tennis-ball-sized pastry lumps, fried to a light crispness and stuffed with meat and spices. Onto these we dolloped spoonfuls of a cold, green mint sauce. The better appetizer, though, was a plate full of tiny, perfectly fried chicken fingers, which looked as if they may have been roasted in the cylindrical tandoor -- nicely spiced and a little oniony.

Just when we thought we couldn't eat any more -- the entrees. Luke's Lamb Jalfraizies ($10) overflowed with flavor, especially when paired with the garlic naan. (Our art director had complained that, on a previous trip to Top of India, his curry had been "bland." Was he talking about the same place?) Good separately -- indeed, the naan could almost be an appetizer on its own -- the two came together like Voltron, Luke said, "to explode my taste buds and unite my flavor crystals."

In direct contrast to the naan was the Onion Kulcha, a kind of naan made with coriander and onion and baked in the tandoor. It had a far more subdued flavor and aroma. Its coupling with the Lamb Jalfraizies yielded "the more delicate dance of flavors and textures" than the naan, Luke noted later, adding, "It was Jerry Rice to the garlic naan's George Hamilton. Assertive, yet tender and graceful." Too bad his lamb was a bit overcooked -- a bit like the texture of stew meat. Thoroughly edible, but far from ideal.

He seemed pleased, though, with his mango lassi, a kind of smoothie made from mango and yogurt that defused the building heat of his lamb dish.

I had the Chicken Tikka Masala ($10), which the menu describes as "Tandoor-roasted chicken in a delicately spiced sauce." That's half-right. Mixed in with white rice, the pale orange-brown sauce had a very impressive balance between a certain creamy sweetness (somewhat akin to squash soup) and a hint of sourness at the back corners of the mouth. It was less delicate, however, on the spice-sensing quadrants of the tongue. The spices seemed innocuous at first, but with every successive spoonful, the heat built until my nose began to run and my eyes started to water. Not that that's bad. I just should've gone with one of the lassis (mango or regular) instead of my Red Hook Blonde. (If I were really thinking ahead I would've at least ordered an IPA -- "when in Calcutta ... " as they say.)

Later, our photographer arrived to take pictures of the food. The waitress brought out a display of buttered chicken and lassi and garlic naan and vegetable somosas, and then wrapped them all up to go.

That's when, with curry-full stomachs and hands full of dessert -- fennel seeds! -- we stepped out the front door into the parking lot. Yeah, yeah, we're still in the Valley. We know already. And we don't care.

Top of India, 11114 E. Sprague, Mon-Sat 11 am-3 pm, Sun 12 pm-3 pm, Daily 5 pm-10 pm, Call: 927-0500

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