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Restaurant Review: Royal India

+ shameful
++ mediocre
+++ delightful
++++ amazing

Royal India +++

329 Market St. 92101
(619) 269-9999

Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily

Cuisine: Northern Indian

Budget impact: Moderate

At the plush Royal India you can end up with either sparks or fireballs in your mouth. Or if it’s a gentle butt-kicking you seek _ no problem. It all boils down to how you order.

The restaurant specializes in cuisine from India’s northern Punjab province, which means those screeching-hot chili peppers used generously in dishes throughout the country’s southern regions appear by default in smaller doses, and they’re quelled by subdued curries or butter.

Arriving with sturdy tongues, my companion and I hoped to cry a few tears.

“Go with either Indian-medium or American-medium,” our attentive waitress suggested as we zeroed in on chicken with tamarind curry and lamb shank doused in tomato-ginger curry. On a scale of 1 to 10, “Indian medium” starts at 7. For Americans, it’s punched down to 5. Regretfully, we chose the latter and ended up with nary a sweat bead dripping from our foreheads. Next time around, I’ll do like the Indians.

Royal India plays it safer than other kitchens around town serving the same type of cuisine, perhaps to avoid scaring off tourists and conventioneers roving these streets. But its atmospheric comfort and polished wait service defy most Gaslamp dining experiences that yank you in and spit you out in an hour’s time.

Stone accent walls, trickling water panels and well-spaced seating provide a tranquil setting seemingly sanctioned by feng shui experts. Within minutes of settling in, a smartly outfitted server appears with chutneys and wafer-thin crackers flavored with cumin and pepper, called papadum. Our waitress was particularly astute, as she quickly detected my companion’s flat Taj Mahal beer. Within seconds upon pouring it into his glass and seeing no bubbles, she snatched it away and returned promptly with a new bottle.

At the front of our meal, tangy shrimp pakora from the appetizer menu sounded promising. The crustaceans are fried in chickpea batter used also for mushrooms, eggplant and cauliflower. Sadly, the dish offered no surprise tang or spice – just battered shrimp over a bed of fresh shredded cabbage.

Mulligatawny soup proved more interesting, a peppery broth containing undertones of cinnamon flirting whimsically with tomatoes, lentils and pieces of roasted chicken. In a previous visit, I found the exotic mango soup equally thrilling, as it strikes instant friendships between the fruit, cumin and peppercorns.

From the salad category, we chose a medley of sliced onions with hot chilies and lemon. Here is where sissy palates could get into trouble, whether from biting directly into the peppers or into any of the raw onions that catch their seeds. At last, we had struck hotness.

Despite weak levels of capsaicin in our main courses, the lamb shank was ultra tender, and probably domestically raised since it didn’t smack of gaminess. As for the ginger-tamarind curry with chicken, it was expectedly sweet, tasting only slightly edgier than straight-up tamarind, due to its “American-medium” allowance of chili peppers.

Other curries include tomato-based vindaloo; korma made with cashew paste; classic masala spiked with garlic and spices; and butter tarka, which carries the clarified silkiness of a fine French sauce, as witnessed in my first visit.

With a dozen different curries in all, you can match them to chicken, lamb, shrimp, fish, lobster meat or veggies. Despite a myriad of possibilities, you really can't go wrong crafting a meal. The bigger trick, however, is making sure that you don’t overestimate the restaurant’s heat barometer.

For an abbreviated sampling of Royal India’s fare, visit their lunch buffet, offered from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. daily. The cost is $12 per person.