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Spicy retreat

It was 8:45 p.m. and the jokes were flying at our table. "You know you're at a restaurant on I-Drive when ... A) You wait an hour for a drink refill. B) You seriously consider going to the restroom for a glass of tap water. C) You actually do this, and the staff doesn't notice.

Thank God the faucets worked, as my friend said.

Our group had arrived at New Punjab Indian Restaurant at 7 p.m., and more than 90 minutes later, we were still waiting for our check -- and water refills. The "help wanted" sign out front should have been a tip-off. There was only one waitress in the dining room filled with dozens of customers. We watched as she shifted into high gear and tried in vain to take care of everyone. We couldn't even make eye contact to show our best, most pleading expressions. After dining on curries, hot sauces and peppers, the need for water was more than a nicety -- it was essential.

We later found out that we just happened to catch the restaurant as it was experiencing a rare fluke, being short-staffed on sudden notice. And that later in the evening, another waitress had arrived to ease the pressure.

Indian cuisine is so rich and complex, and there is so little of it in Orlando, that I think this I-Drive restaurant remains a strong competitor. A stand-by for Indian food since1988, New Punjab offers an excellent tour of the classics: curries, fried puff breads, chutneys, stewed lentils, tandoor dishes baked in clay ovens and more.

Filmy curtains obscure the view of the neon-bright, tourist-clogged boulevard outside, and the dulcet strains of sitars float through the softly lit dining area. Its authentic ethnic ambience would be more in line with what you'd expect to find in bohemian Greenwich Village than commercial International Drive.

We started off with the variety tray ($7.95), which gave a taste of the majors: cracker-crisp papadam bread studded with spicy lentils; bhaji onion fritters and puffy, deep-fried aloo pakora vegetable fritters, enriched with hot spices. Thesamosa pastries were as round and big as tennis balls, stuffed with potatoes and peas -- better yet, order them as a separate appetizer stuffed with chicken ($3.50). The mango chutney ($1.95) was chunky and full-bodied, and we lavished it on the pashwarinan bread ($3.75), sweetened with crushed nuts and raisins.

A tandoor dish is the litmus test of an Indian restaurant, and Punjab prepares a delicious chicken tikka kebab ($13.95), threaded with gorgeous char-broiled meat, onions, peppers and tomatoes. Another recommendable entree is the superbly creamy "lamb fancy nuts curry" ($14.95), featuring dark lamb meat in a mild, yellow curry sauce with raisins and nuts. All dinners come with unlimited helpings of delicately steamed white rice.

When we finally recaptured our waitress' attention and got the check, she couldn't have been more gracious and apologetic for the prolonged wait, which went a long way toward smoothing over what was otherwise a satisfying experience.

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