REVIEW: This Indian food stays mainly in the plain

Mixed vegetable pakora (Image: Howard Portnoy)

In the window of Deccan Spice is a novelty “fire lamp,” a pan from which simulated silk flames rise, propelled by a fan concealed beneath. Be warned as you descend the two steps down from street level into the restaurant that this is the last fake fire you will experience. The food that is presented to you is culled from the recipes of the Deccan Plateau of South India, and many of the dishes, even when ordered “mild,” may be hotter than your palate and Scoville meter are accustomed to.

Not a whole lot of thought or capital went into the décor, which consists primarily of a tufted red banquette along one wall, flanked by some dozen of so closely set bare-topped tables. On the opposite wall, next to the cashier’s stand, is the one lone gesture to art: a mixed-media objet that could perhaps be best described as a bird’s-eye view of a park.

But we come here to eat, in which department the restaurant earns high marks. Take the addictive mixed vegetable pakora, strands of onion, string beans, and cauliflower, immersed in a highly seasoned chickpea batter and fried till crunchy and golden: Like a sublime street food, the salty morsels and clusters are hard to stop eating.

The samosas here, stuffed with mashed potatoes and peas, are just so-so, but the Apollo fish is terrific, if consumed through a veil of tears. This is handsomely crusted but moist tufts of tilapia tinctured with a creamy if searingly hot glaze, mingled with bits of browned garlic and scallions.

Apollo fish (Image: Howard Portnoy)

Chicken “lolly lolly” is also good if you can tolerate the blistering heat from salan, a chili paste. Infusions of heavy cream and coconut go a small way toward taming the fire. The endless supply of basmati rice served alongside also helps.

For chicken minus the heat opt for hariyali, chunks of thigh meat marinated in a blend of yogurt, mint, and cilantro, then grilled in the tandoor till it is lightly charred and powerfully fragrant.

Hariyali chicken (Image: Howard Portnoy)

The house delivers an enormously satisfying version of “spinach lamb,” which Indian food enthusiasts will know better as lamb saag. The dish is comprised of tender cuts of the meat in mildly spiced cream spinach.

Lamb spinach (Image: Howard Portnoy)

Excellent breads include a golden and puffy onion kulcha and fragrant garlic naan.

The Curry Hill Deccan Spice is one link in a chain of eight locations throughout the country with its home base in Jersey City. Like most Indian restaurants in this area, it is a dollar or two higher per dish than its counterparts on Sixth Street, but considering the generally high quality of the food, it is a downright bargain.

Prices range from $5.95 to 14.50 for starters, $13.50 to $17.50 for main courses, $2.50 to $3.95 for breads.

Deccan Spice, 120 Lexington Avenue, at 28th St., 212-510-7200.