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CURRY UP

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While dining at CurryShop, the newly opened Indian restaurant in Park Slope, I tasted one of the most delicious soups imaginable followed by one of the strangest desserts.

In a "Seinfeld" episode, Elaine tastes the "Soup Nazi’s" Mulligatawny soup. After one sip her knees weaken, she sinks to the ground, looks heavenward and cries, "Oh my God!" I had a similar experience after tasting the CurryShop’s Mulligatawny.

The recipe for this awe-inspiring soup is credited to English import Christopher Sell, the owner and chef of CurryShop (and ChipShop, the fish and chips restaurant next door).

The soup is entirely vegetarian, but tastes like a long-simmering meat soup; I swore that the ground rice and lentils that thicken the soup were ground lamb. It’s nearly thick enough to stand a spoon in, and so perfumed with garlic, ginger and cumin that a cloud of its aroma hits your table a good minute before the soup arrives.

In fact, a bowl of Sell’s soup is a journey through India by way of the spoon: an exotic spice odyssey. Every slurp reveals a different nuance of spice: first coriander, then ginger, then strongly of chili peppers. A slice of lime sits on the bowl’s rim. A squeeze of that lime concentrates the spices’ flavors and gives the soup an acidic zing.

The strangest concoction - and one that disproves the theory that frying anything will improve its flavor - is a deep-fried Snickers bar, one of several deep-fried candies that include the Twix, the Bounty (an English version of our Mars bars), and, not included on the menu but offered to "those in the know," are the fried Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups.

Our waiter described the dessert as, "good, but not especially good for you."

No kidding.

The Snickers bar is dipped in batter then fried to a multi-layered golden crunchiness. A lavish powdering of confectioner’s sugar is the final touch. It’s a pretty enough dessert (all 12,000 calories) that resembles a piece of taffy wrapped in gold tissue paper; and it’s sweet enough to kill a lifetime of sugar cravings.

What’s offered between the high and the low on the CurryShop menu is very good indeed.

"Indian food in America often hits you with a blast of spice then the rest of the eating is pretty flat," says Sell. Not so for the Birmingham Balti, a variant of the one served by Pakistani immigrants who migrated to England in the mid-’70s. The balti is named for the Kashmir curry blend the Pakistanis favored and the cast-iron pan used to cook their curried stir-fries.

"Their curries," says Sell, "have more layers of flavor. More tomatoes are added so the sauce is redder, and the curries have a thick onion gravy." Sell doesn’t claim that CurryShop serves authentic Indian cuisine; but it is authentic Indian cooking by way of England, and his curries blow the anemic Indian food, common to many Brooklyn neighborhoods, right out of the kitchen.

To start, aside from the Mulligatawny, there are light vegetable and beef samosas (triangular fried pastries); and the cold, curried, "Coronation Chicken Salad," created in honor of Queen Victoria’s Jubilee.

The samosas, so often greasy and leaden, are light and crispy, and the peas, potatoes and carrots inside the vegetable samosas are lightly seasoned, slightly peppery and very fresh. The samosas are delicious when dipped into one of three sauces: a refreshing green mixture of mint, coriander, chilies and yogurt; a slightly tart tamarind sauce made from a sweet-and-sour blend of fruit, vinegar and sugar; and a chutney of chopped onions that have some bite, mixed with syrupy, reduced tomatoes.

Curries are the only entrees, and they are a mix-and-match affair. Diners are invited to mix one of five sauces with one of five savory offerings. The sauces begin with vindaloo, "the hot one," and end with korma, "the mild, creamy, nutty one," to blend with chicken, beef, shrimp or vegetables.

The balti is traditionally eaten with naan, a slightly puffed and tangy Indian bread, and it can be ordered that way at CurryShop, or with a pyramid of perfectly steamed, pea-flecked jasmine rice.

The shrimp vindaloo is deceiving. At first it seems almost mild, but the heat of the vindaloo’s hot chili powder and fresh green chilies grows steadily. By the end of the meal we had peeled off our sweaters and dabbed at our faces with water-dipped napkins. Instead of being lost in layers of spice, the delicate, sweet flavor of the shrimp melded beautifully with the sauce adding a bit of neutral relief to the mouth.

Ordering a bottle of the medium bodied Boddington (one of six English or Irish beers on draft), with its slightly bitter flavor, is the best way to control the heat.

The chicken balti (they’re all baltis but this one is called balti on the menu) is a mix of rich tomato sauce and sweet, slow-cooked onion sauce flavored with garam masala (a blend of aromatic spices that includes cardamom, cinnamon, turmeric and fennel seeds). The balti lacks the slow buildup of heat that makes the vindaloo so exciting, but its nutty, sweet, savory and bitter notes are just as flavorful.

For dessert you can order a fried candy bar, as we did, or try one of the English puddings or trifles listed on the CurryShop menu.

We tried the trifle described by Sell as being "the ultimate trailer park food." This trifle is no stodgy, fancy, layered confection sitting in the center of a Christmas buffet table; served in a plastic dish, CurryShop’s trifle sports Jell-O, canned fruit, vanilla custard and a thick topping of whipped cream. You won’t find a single natural color in the dish - everything is tinted an odd pink - and its crowning flourish is a dusting of neon-colored sprinkles. While I wouldn’t place it on my top 10 list of fine desserts, it was refreshing and the cold creaminess of the pudding was a welcome relief after the curries.

Sell describes the CurryShop’s dining area as "kitschy," and its decor does reference India in amusing ways: the walls are a deep jewel red; the tables are closely packed; and heart-shaped wicker fans are mounted to the walls. The fans act as discreet cooling systems quietly waving over the heads of over-heated spice lovers.

CurryShop (383 Fifth Ave. at Sixth Street in Park Slope) accepts cash only. Entrees: $8-$11. For more information, call (718) 832-7701.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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