Rich treasures

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We arrived early for dinner -- about 5 p.m. -- at Passage to India, and although the restaurant was virtually empty of customers, we still had a sense of the countless people who have enjoyed meals within its four walls. The foyer was studded with framed photographs of celebrity regulars. We spotted one of Shaquille O'Neal, but another photo looked like Julio Iglesias as a famous cricket player.

For more than a decade, Passage to India has held fast to its reputation for fine Indian dining on International Drive. While it draws its share of locals, tourist business accounts significantly for its success.

Proprietor Uday Kadam has created a selection of classic Indian dishes that are, as the menu reads, "rich but not fatty, spicy but not hot." We found that to be the case with the appetizer platter ($8.95), which is a reasonably priced way to investigate the spices and textures of Indian cuisine: juicy chicken tikka tenders roasted in spicy yogurt sauce, flaky samosa pastries stuffed with peas and potatoes, crunchy pakora vegetable fritters and the more spicy, deep-fried bhaji onions.

Vegetarians will have a heyday with more than a dozen vegetable-based dishes. We absolutely loved palak sabji dal ($12.95), a sautéed mixture of spinach and eggplant in a deep, dark, tomato-based sauce. The other half of the menu is represented by chicken, lamb and seafood. All dinners are served with all-you-can-eat helpings of fluffy, oven-baked basmati rice, which is perfumed with hints of cumin, cinnamon and cloves.

Chicken korma ($15.95) was a creamy, curry dish that was prepared in an extremely mild version; the heat level barely registered. So if you prefer more formidable renditions, be specific with the waiter in advance. Lamb palak ($18.95) was more recommendable with its delicious sauce of ginger and garlic, and accented with sautéed onions and spinach.

The dining room affords a sense of intimacy, and it is formally appointed with mahogany and ruby-red details that evoke images of Bombay and the days of the British empire. Service was poised and graceful, but not affected. We felt welcomed from the beginning to the end of our dinner. Passage to India is a haven for those who want to explore the nuances of Indian cuisine in an upscale setting.

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