Grant Ellis

Editor's note: Mirch Masala is now under different ownership.

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Initially, Mirch Masala is easy to miss and hard to get excited about. Situated in an unimpressive storefront on Broadway—in the former home of Macheezmo Mouse and several less criminally named others—the plain room contains nondescript tables bracketed by nondescript chairs, and the hostess of this venue promising "Indian food at its tastiest" is decidedly Asian. But get yourself seated with a menu and a beverage—our server recommends the Haywards 5000 ($6.95), a 22-ounce lager that claims to be "India's largest-selling strong beer"—and things begin to fall into place.

Whatever the ethnic particulars of the friendly and highly capable hostess, Mirch Masala is Indian where it counts—in the kitchen, a narrow semi-open stretch visible to half the restaurant's diners, and on the menu, which offers a thorough culinary tour of the Indian subcontinent, with an emphasis on delights from the northern and western regions, like creamy braised-meat kormas, rich biryani rice dishes, tandoor-broiled fish and chicken, fresh spinach saag, captivatingly mellow paneer.

Regarding those last two: Cafe Flora and Carmelita do fine work in supplying Seattle vegetarians and those who love them with casually elegant, on-the-edge-of-indulgent evenings, but Indian food is a hungry vegetarian's best friend. I still remember my first encounter with a vegetable pakora, the Indian appetizer that shocked me into awareness of the deep-fried hole in my heart. (One can only eat so many French fries, and fried cheese is for kids and the cripplingly obese.) At Mirch Masala, the gram-flour-and-vegetable pakoras—available by themselves ($3.95) or alongside two exemplary deep-fried vegetable samosas on the mixed appetizer plate ($7.95)—are but a deep-fried welcome mat to the menu's paradise of meat-free choices.

The aforementioned spinach saag serves as a base for either the aforementioned paneer ($10.95) or thick chunks of potato ($8.95), either of which adds up to a vegetarian feast. Mirch Masala's saag is the lightest, freshest, most intensely flavorful I've tasted; if there's a more effective culinary narcotic than spicy saag commingling with almost-al-dente basmati rice, I haven't located it. Venturing away from the saag (which was hard—I like my narcotics), I found a handful of worthy vegetarian entrées—light and spicy vegetable jalfraizi ($9.95), creamy vegetable Goan curry ($10.95), and, best of all, mattar paneer ($9.95), which submerges the paneer in a wonderfully complex tomato sauce in which all 25 of the standard Indian spices seem to be duking it out, with fresh green peas as the referees. The night after I ate the mattar paneer, I dreamed about it.

The Mirch Masala narcotic worked equally well on my meat-eating dining mate— specifically, the tandoori fish ($13.95), an anonymous white fish marinated overnight in yogurt and spices, then broiled in the tandoor with a bright-red coat of paprika, described by my partner as "some of the best fish I've ever had." Pressed for details, he said, "It's the perfect thickness—about an inch and a half thick—and cooked perfectly throughout. It flakes while remaining moist." His praise for the lamb Goan curry ($11.95) was equally gushy but more succinct: "It's lamb, coconut, and butter, so there's no way it's not going to be delicious. But what they do with it is incredible."

Much of this incredibleness is achieved at the expense of one's arteries. "Butter and ghee" are common components of many North Indian delights; with ghee being essentially clarified butter, "butter and ghee" presents itself as the savory Indian cousin of the West's double-whammy "sugar and high-fructose corn syrup." But the rewards of the buttery extravagance are palpable—nearly every dish I've tried at Mirch Masala hums with a deep, impossible-to-fake excellence. My carnivorous companion says the same about the dishes he's tried. When a vegetarian and nonvegetarian can lust after the same restaurant that isn't a pizza parlor, all is well.

When Mirch Masala first opened, the service was attentive to an anxiety-inducing degree. Water glasses were refilled after a single sip, plates whisked away while you were still chewing, waitpeople forever hovered; we'd leave blissfully sated but lightly traumatized. This led us to switch to takeout, which is a mistake: Mirch Masala's presentation is lovely—entrées come in copper pots suspended over small flames, as if removing them from heat for even a second would somehow disrupt the long-simmering butter-voodoo magic. So I wrote them a letter, detailing the depth of my affection and cause of my concern. Apparently, it worked, perhaps too well, as now Mirch Masala service can be as slow as chutney in January. Still, it's better than the old server-as-hummingbird routine, and the food makes it all worth it. recommended

schmader@thestranger.com