ilky and spicy dahi kabab-seared peppercorn-laced yogurt-with a salad of micro greens and an orange-coriander vinaigrette

Three smart restaurants approach the complexities of Indian cuisine from different angles-and all get right to the heart of it

Whenever I walk into a good Indian res­taurant and inhale the fragrance of spice, I enjoy a Proustian moment. This seminal appreciation for Indian flavors began decades ago, years before my palate matured, when I lived for a month in Calcutta with a family who served me nothing but amazing-and breathtakingly fiery-traditional vegetarian food. Ever since, I’ve considered Indian cookery one of the world’s most enticing and complex cuisines. Lately, thanks to three fine Indian restaurants, each with a different approach, I’ve been feasting like a maharajah.

On that that long-ago trip, I learned that the marigold is an essential Indian festival flower. And since August, it is also the name of a contemporary Indian restaurant on the ground floor of a handsome Uptown limestone with newly rehabbed lofts for sale. Marigold is vibrantly festive but not decked out like your typical knickknack-laden Devon Avenue joint. With its high ceiling, jammed bar, backless upholstered cube seats, and pulsating techno music, the place is more in line with, say, Blackbird, than with Udupi Pal­ace-but there’s one telling difference: an intoxicating potpourri of Eastern aromas wafts through the long, narrow dining room.

The owners have impressive pedigrees: James Dragatsis is a Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises veteran, and Sandeep Malhotra, a New Delhi native, has an MBA in management. Executive chef Monica Riley, a Chicagoan who has cooked at Zinfandel, Meritage, and restaurants from Beirut to Tokyo, knows classical Indian cuisine but takes an international approach. Some of her creations at Marigold reflect Gallic influences, giving them an unusual Franco-Indian sensibility; maybe the success of Vermilion, where Maneet Chauhan charms with Latino-Indian fusion, provided inspiration. Nor does Marigold’s menu resemble any at most Indian restaurants: instead of the usual dozens of items, there are just five starters, four midcourses, and seven entrées. Naan is the only bread served, but it is well made, puffy and with a sheen of ghee on one side. And the portions are gen­erous enough that many diners will be satisfied with two courses.

Duck leg confit with tomato chutney draped over green beans

Riley’s talent for fusion surfaces in two terrific appetizers. Three bulky scallops, grilled and dusted with garam masala (a dry-roasted North Indian spice blend), arrive atop grilled spiced asparagus and whole shallots. Naturally, those yellow-to-reddish flecks on the dish are marigold petals, which garnish other dishes as well. Even more succulent is the duck leg confit, savory with Indian spices and cooked dum-style (Moghul pot roasting in fat) and served with tomato chutney and tangy green beans stir-fried in a kadhai (an Indian wok). This is almost a meal in itself-and one I would return for in a heartbeat.

For the midcourse, there’s an excellent-and huge-potato- and pea-filled samosa served with thick mint and tamarind chutneys. The first time I tried the curry-coconut calamari and mussel soup made with sambhar (a South Indian spice blend), I found it too salty; the second time it was on the mark, leaving the curry and coconut free to enhance the melody of marine flavors. Even better, though, was the dahi kabab, seared peppercorn-laced yogurt the texture of fresh goat cheese, served with a very French-looking salad of micro greens and an orange-coriander vinaigrette.

Riley can also light the fuse on dynamite lamb dishes. Take the entrée of lamb shank vindaloo-a spin on a deceptively simple-looking bistro-style dish. The waiter warned me about the heat, but I dove right in. Yes, it made me sweat, and I used every ounce of the sides of thick cucumber raita and fluffy basmati rice that balanced the vinegary pungency. Bottom line: I loved it. Clearly the chef is no wimp about Indian spices, but she also knows when to go for subtlety: the comparatively tame lamb chops were easily the best I’ve ever had in an Indian restaurant. Marinated in spiced yogurt and mustard seeds, the three medium-rare chops were juicy and smoky from their turn in the tandoor (clay oven), and the fine lamb flavor shone through the treatment. They were aptly paired with an upma cake, an interesting polenta-like treat made with ground legumes and cashews. Fish options include a memorable coriander-crusted and pan-seared halibut beautifully served on a bed of dal (peas, beans, lentils) with tempura-like vegetable pakoras.

Marinated in yogurt and mustard seeds, Marigold’s lamb chops are impossibly juicy.

Two of the four desserts are traditional: kheer, a rice pudding infused with rose es­sence, and kulfi, a cone of smooth ice cream garnished with pistachios. The other two are au courant-a picture-perfect ginger crème brûlée and a trio of chocolate truffles in flavors like red curry and lavender orange. To my regret, there is no lassi (a yogurt drink) on the menu, but there are specialty martinis such as a terrific Mumbai mary made with Absolut Peppar, limoncello, and bloody mary mix. From a well-priced list of three dozen thoughtfully chosen wines, we enjoyed a 2004 Dr. Loosen Bernkasteler Lay Kabinett Riesling ($45). The service is informal, and not yet as polished as the food; I experienced achingly long waits between courses and an onslaught of entrées showed up a moment after my party was served a midcourse-turned out the dishes belonged to a different table. A little fine-tuning in the front of the house and Marigold could be a real head turner.

Ambitious Chicago restauranteurs typically migrate to the suburbs to expand their empires. But India House’s owner, Jagmohan Jayara, opened in Schaumburg in 1993, then spun off outposts in Buffalo Grove, Oak Brook, Rockford, and Fort Lauderdale (Florida) before gambling on downtown Chicago. The inviting room looks very much as it did when it housed Zinfandel, notwithstanding the white plastic tablecloths covered with paper. A bearded and turbaned host and his tuxedoed staff are more formal than at Marigold, but on my visits, soon after the speedy delivery of a basket of baby naan and hot spicy dip, the place filled up and the service slowed down.

The big menu ranges broadly over regional styles, from street fare to a huge array of more familiar dishes. From the first category, I especially favored the papdi chat, nacho-shaped pastry crisps topped with potatoes, onions, and cilantro under sweet chutney and chilled yogurt. I also couldn’t get enough of the belpuri, noodles mixed with sweet-and-sour hot chutney. It’s a simple but snappy snack, all crackle and pop from tiny noodles that recall Rice Krispies. Cozy as can be were the deep-fried ground cashew and almond rolls stuffed with mashed potatoes and served with mint-an appetizer I’ve never seen on Devon.

Festive brass lanterns imported from India

Familiar tandoori standards like shrimp and lamb chops are impeccable. I liked the chicken reshmi kabab of boneless breast chunks (first simmered in butter cream and cashew nut paste, then finished in the tandoor) much better than the dry chicken tikka masala, which is roasted in the clay oven and folded into a spicy cream sauce. Entrées rebounded with Goan fish curry and lamb rajala, meat chunks cooked in an aromatic spicy mint sauce. From the iron wok came two terrific vegetarian dishes: kadhai paneer, homemade cheese stir-fried with onions, ginger, garlic, chilies, and cilantro, and dal banjara, soupy lentils with fine spice flavors. Beyond the complimentary naan, breads here rate their own menu category. Among a dozen-plus tempting varieties, I found less common ones such as Kashmiri naan stuffed with pineapple, cherries, and walnuts, and Jaipuri paratha, whole wheat bread stuffed with mint and herbs.

My favorite India House dessert was traditional gulab jamun: fried milk pastry dumplings soaking in hot saffron syrup. There’s a small, broadly priced wine list, but I gravitated to the spice-quenching mango lassi or a large bottle of Indian Krait Lager ($8.50) from Cobra Brewing-a beer brewed in Poland under Belgian license.

Curry Hut, Highwood’s first Indian restaurant, resides a stone’s throw from a north suburban Metra station. The owner, Bala Ghimire, leads the efficient and courteous service team and presides over a white-tablecloth dining room spiffy and simple with swag drapery, peach walls, and blond wood chairs. Hardly a hut, this is a lovely space for executive chef Tek Chand’s Indian and Nepalese dishes. The two countries-each a part of Chand’s heritage-have similar culinary traditions.

I was impressed with all the de rigueur In­dian appetizers, from paneer pakora-homemade cheese deep-fried in garbanzo batter-to three kinds of zesty samosas: chicken, lamb, and vegetable. (Go with lamb.) A companion also loved his clove-scented lentil and vegetable soupafter a spoonful I agreed with him.By all means try a few of the ten tandoori breads; the simple naan and roti are fine, but the piazi kulcha stuffed with onion and cilantro and the keema naan stuffed with minced lamb are really special.

Long a paragon of rustic French attitude, a good Côtes du Rhône boasts marvelous peppery and herbal flavors with a soupçon of appealing roughness. It’s perfect for robust winter fare like beef stew. But regrettably, a surprising number of Côtes du Rhône makers are hopping on the sweeter, softer, smoother bandwagon of many modern American and Australian everyday reds. I’m not just talking about the 2002 vintage, diminished by excessive rainfall, and best forgotten; even many from 2003 and 2004-both better growing years-lack traditional gutsiness. That said, I did find three Rhônes from 2003 that claim the classic earthy stuffing of Mediterranean French grenache and syrah grapes: André Brunel Cuvée Sabrine Côtes du Rhône Villages ($12), M. Chapoutier Belleruche ($12), and Les Caves de la Colombe Cairanne Côtes du Rhône Villages ($14). Is it just coincidence that all three are unfiltered-the old-fashioned French way?
–D. R. W.

Chand’s expertise with Indian classics is undeniable: the chicken tikka masala is tender, the tandoori prawns truly exceptional, and several lamb dishes stand out. Of course there’s a lamb curry, cooked in tomatoes and onions with a cardamom-dominated sauce. As usual, the lamb vindaloo, chunks of meat marinated and cooked in a sauce of vinegar, hot chilies, spices, and mustard oil, is fiery-with potatoes to make the dish authentically Goan. Three juicy and flavorful tandoori-roasted lamb chops, with a thick spice coating, arrive on a sizzling platter in a bed of raw vegetables with lemon wedges, meant to be squeezed over the chops for a final flourish. Gosht biryani-a generous platter of saffron-scented balsamic rice with spices and chunks of lamb-is perfect for sharing.

My favorite Nepalese dishes were mo mo (the name alone makes it irresistible)-dumplings of spiced minced chicken that looked Chinese but had a distinctive sauce, a mustardlike achar-and khasi ko maasu, tender goat meat braised on the bone with herbs and spices. Both were less oily than most Indian food, though I confess it was hard for me to detect what exactly was different about the “Himalayan herbs and spices” other than the achar.

Curry Hut’s mango kulfi is not as elegant as Marigold’s, but the mango flavor alone makes it a winner; the gulab jamun was just as tasty as the one at India House. Indian wines are listed strictly by the glass, but when I asked if they could be had by the bottle, the waiter recommended the 2006 Sula Vineyards syrah ($30). It’s one of the first Indian wines I’ve tasted and its style convinced me that India’s vineyards, just like these three very good restaurants, have a future.

Curry Hut410 Sheridan Road, Highwood; www.curryhutrestaurant.com. Appetizers $3.50 to $12.95; entrées $8.95 to $24.95; desserts $3.50 to $3.95. Lunch and dinner daily. Reservations: 847-432-2889.

India House59 West Grand Avenue. Appetizers $3.75 to $9.95; entrées $8.95 to $24.95; desserts $4 to $8. Lunch and dinner daily. Reservations: 312-645-9500.

Marigold4832 North Broadway; www.marigoldrestaurant.com. Appetizers $5 to $11; entrées $5 to $19; desserts $4 to $8. Dinner Tuesday to Sunday. Reservations: 773-293-4653.