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Pure gold

The section of South Orange Blossom Trail on the edge of Florida Mall territory has been catering to varying appetites for some time as the area continues to diversify. One of the area's few German restaurants is here (Gain's), Amigos caters to the Tex-Mex crowd, and Laxmi Plaza offers food and sundry shopping to a growing population of Indian residents.

And when it comes to healthy appetites, Woodlands -- across the road from Laxmi -- is a restaurant worth adding to your go-to list. As their website (woodlands-usa.com) proclaims, "Step-in and you will be wafted with the aroma of enthralling culinary appetizing that the already proud regular customers are experiencing now."

You also could be experiencing now the flavors, aromas and visual delight of the South Indian cuisine served here.

Recipes from the southern region, the ancient India below the Vindhya Mountains, are based on Hindu tradition and use ingredients differently than the northern menus we're more familiar with. So no Kashmiri dishes like tandoori, no naan bread, no vindaloo. And no meat -- Woodlands maintains a "pure vegetarian" kitchen. (That means no animal fats, either.)

Purely delightful is more to the point. Coconut milk instead of cream, mustard seeds and fiery-hot chili peppers add to the distinctive cookery. Woodlands specializes in dosai -- thin, plate-sized crepes that are fried crisp or filled with savory items like hot chutney or potatoes ($4.75 to $6.50).

The traditional spicy and sour soup called rasam ($2.50), hot with peppers and sweet with tamarind, is a heated warm-up for dishes that stimulate every part of the tongue. Rich and sometimes smoky flavors inhabit "Gobi Manchurian" ($6.50), sautéed cauliflower, sharp with ginger and garlic, and spiced with chili and soy sauce. A concoction of lentils, brown rice and vegetables called "pongol avial" is one you'll want again ($6.50). My favorite Indian curry, the spinach-based palak paneer ($6.95) is done to a deep, creamy and slightly hot perfection.

Settling in on a favorite is fine, but the bargain is one of the dinner specials. "Mysore Royal Thali" ($14.95) combines samosa appetizers, chana chickpea curry, spiced lentil sambar and more into a feast of bright colors (such as the green coriander raita sauce) and dazzling tastes.

Offer thanks to the portrait by the front door of Sri Ganesha, the elephant-headed god of luck and new beginnings, for such a fine meal. As it says on the website, "We guarantee a sound and happy sleep after dinnertime at Woodlands."And one with a warm and satisfied belly.

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