At Paradise India, one intuitively knows to just start eating 

Idon't know about you, but I'm a lot more excited about Indian cuisine since I discovered that actress Jennifer Love Hewitt, the Modigliani-faced star of the TV series Ghost Whisperer, is simply mad for it. "My new pig-out food is Indian food," the skinny little actress has been quoted as saying. "I eat Indian food, like, three times a week."

I don't eat Indian food, like, three times a month, though I'm very fond of it. The good news is that if I wanted to eat Indian food as often as Hewitt, the metro now has plenty of excellent restaurants serving the distinctively spicy cuisine. As I've noted in this space before, cookbook author Sharda Gopal insists that Indian food isn't just good-tasting but also is full of vim and vigor. "Indians are almost intuitively aware of the medicinal properties of the herbs and spices they use to flavor their food," she writes, "and they eat not just for sheer enjoyment and to stay alive, but to keep their bodies healthy and well-tuned."

Believe me, if I felt that Indian cuisine could tune up my lazy body, I'd be off and running to places like New Café Tandoor, Korma Sutra or Taj Mahal and stuffing samosas down my gullet faster than you could say Fardeen Khan. (He's the current Bollywood heartthrob and bad boy.) But I have weaknesses for the tandoor-baked breads and deep-fried pakoras that will forever keep me from having Fardeen's chiseled features and narrow hips. Not that I give a damn, I tell myself as I slather gooey mango chutney onto a wedge of puffy, buttery grilled paratha. I'm intuitively aware only of what tastes good.

That's what brings me to Paradise India, the two-month-old restaurant owned by Delhi native Yogi Gupta. Johnson County already has a bounty of fine Indian restaurants, but Yogi's strip-mall venue is a real contender — and not just because the food is fresh and wonderful. After all, not every Indian restaurant boasts a waiter like Drew Santana. On the night I dined with Bob, Linda and Richard, I told Santana that he looked familiar to me. Had he ever worked in a midtown restaurant?

"I look familiar," Santana said, puffing up his chest, "because I'm Ray Romano."

He did look a little like Romano, and he did tell a couple of snappy jokes during our dinner, but only after explaining that he's half-Indian, half-Italian and a little Spanish and Cuban with a few other ethnic bloodlines thrown in. First, though, he let our group sit in a corner of the dining room roped off with a yellow plastic chain.

"Is this the VIP area?" Linda asked.

"Yes," Santana said, "but anyone can sit there."

We sat down and, pretending to be VIPs, started barking out orders. We wanted a few starters, including chili pakoras, which I had never tasted. Gupta doesn't have a liquor license yet, so the closest thing to a cocktail was something called a "Paradise Tropical" — which Santana claimed to have invented. "It's mango, orange and cranberry juices," he explained, "and a shot of Sprite." No one else was brave enough to sample one, but I'm the Mocktail King, so I was all for it. I hesitated when the beverage arrived — it was the exact shade of fresh carrot juice — but it turned out to be a not-too-sweet, refreshing antidote when I bit into a fried jalapeño pepper in a chickpea-batter crust. The crunchy vegetable pakoras and fat samosas stuffed with minced lamb were tastier, and we could dress them up with spoonfuls of sweet, mahogany-colored tamarind sauce; soothing mint chutney; and a punchy, maraschino-red onion chutney. We used the same condiments with thin wedges of fresh-baked naan studded with garlic and griddle-fried (and slightly scorched) paratha — both plain and minty versions.

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