Year after year, Lake Mary's dining scene has been a paragon of the "one step forward, two steps back" idiom, though admittedly this trend of culinary regression may be undergoing a reversal. Newer eateries like Chez Jacqueline and Piada & Piada hold to a fierce authenticity, while Greek Village, La Antioqueña and Memories of India have become established mainstays of the community. Desi food in general appears to be gaining in popularity here with the openings of Darbar Indian Cuisine, Spiceland Indian Grocery and Aroma Indian Cuisine, the latter perking the noses of many with its made-to-order South and North Indian fare.
Owner Srinivas "Srini" Jarugula takes great pride in assembling his kitchen staff every morning to grind spices. "I love seeing customers happy," he says. When I ask him what he did prior to his foray into the restaurant world, he grins sheepishly and admits, "Software engineer." Having the mind of a programmer and the heart of a cook could give a budding restaurateur a much-needed edge, and Jarugula has certainly managed the design, development, execution and quality control of his menu remarkably well. A few minor bugs in service need to be worked out, as no one likes waiting – be it to place an order, for a glass to be refilled or for plates and silverware to be delivered.
I imagine Jarugula will rewrite the code to address those service deficiencies, but there's no doubting the kitchen's near-flawless renditions. I noted the absence of lemon slices on the sizzling-hot plate of chicken tikka kebabs ($11.95), but they hardly seemed necessary after one bite. The morsels were sublimely flavored and a startlingly good opening to our meal. Our digits glistened after tearing into the unleavened deep-fried guilty pleasure known as puri ($8.95), though our hearts sputtered from the oily overload. The bread was to be served with a potato curry, but we received the more traditional chickpea curry instead, itself no small consolation. Even complimentary pappadam – properly fried, not overly spiced, and drizzled with a wee bit of ghee – had us trying to think if a better lentil cracker is served anywhere in the city. None came to mind. The three chutneys we received – tamarind, sambal and a green chili-mint – were all praiseworthy as well, not the goopy afterthoughts often served at other restaurants.
If the start to our meal was enough to make a cardiologist cringe, the way we heartily (har) devoured the house specialty, butter chicken ($13.95), could reduce one to tears. Yes, the dish is luxuriantly naughty, but the sauce was so nuanced, so velvety-smooth, that our naan ($1.95), roti ($1.95) and cholesterol levels didn't stand a chance.
Our other main, bhindi masala ($10.95), a tomato-based okra curry, is one of many options available here for vegetarians. But there wasn't very much available for sugartarians: The only post-dinner sweet on hand was kulfi ($3.25). It's not a favorite of mine, but Jarugula gave us a couple of complimentary servings of the creamy, pistachio-flavored frozen treat and holy cow, it impressed.
At this point, I closed my eyes, trying hard to ignore the letters "LDL" floating in the ocular soup, when a scent jolted my eyes open. Lamb jalfrezi? Biryani? Masala dosa? Chai? No, there was another fragrance wafting from Aroma, and it smelled like victory. Look out, Memories of India.
AROMA INDIAN CUISINE
4275 W. Lake Mary Blvd., Lake Mary