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Dining in England: when in doubt, go Indian

There is a secret to dining out in England if you're looking for reliably good food at moderate prices. The secret is this: go to the restaurants serving curries and vindaloos, fragrant rice and vegetable chutneys -- the foods of India.

We first discovered it years ago when we took our three teen-aged boys on their first trip to London.

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After many trials we found that Indian restaurants, in this last, final outpost of the Raj, are far better in England than those in the United States.

Frequent return trips without the children strengthened our original impressions.

Indian restaurants in London are excellent and numerous. And there are also good Indian places in almost every sizable city. So I have a good rule of thumb for dining in England: When in doubt, go Indian.

If you are in a small town and face the prospect of an unpromising-looking local eatery whose steak and kidney pie might -- or might not -- be fresh and well made, check out the Indian establishments first. You can count on a variety of delicious dishes at very reasonable prices.

Among the hundreds, some say thousands, of Indian restaurants in London, I have discovered many through the years, some by chance, others through recommendations from ``Old India Hands.''

What makes London's Indian restaurants food so authentic and appealing? Two things are these: the large Indian population living in England, and an indigenous population with strong cultural ties to, nostalgia for, and interest in, the subcontinent.

In other words, there's a knowledgeable, sizable body of connoisseurs who help restauranteurs keep their standards high.

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Start at the Bombay Brasserie in Bailey's Hotel, across from the Gloucester Road tube station.

The setting evokes the sweep and grandeur of colonial India -- two high-ceilinged dining rooms with ceiling fans, coconut palms, a vivid red-orange Oriental carpet, high-backed rattan chairs, and 19th-century Raj photographs.

The regular a la carte menu offers kebabs and tandoori from North India, fish curry with coconut and an incendiary pork vindaloo from Goa, and a traditional Kashmiri mutton roganjosh with yogurt and saffron.

You can also consider the delicious and reasonably priced luncheon buffet for 7.95, or about $10 at current prices. There are curry and chicken and egg dishes and jeera pulao, a light, delicious rice laced with a gentle spicing, topped with browned onion.

Side dishes of pickled mango and tamarind may be hot and are best used sparingly. Raita -- yogurt mixed with chopped cucumber and tomato -- provides a cooling contrast. A flat, light bread called naan is served warm.

A table of desserts offers fresh fruit and barfi -- small, sweet squares filled with nuts -- among several other sweet cakes.

Indian restaurants can be found in almost any London neighborhood. A small, handy, and excellent one in the Covent Garden opera-and-theater district is Last Days of the Raj at 22 Drury Lane.

The restaurant's white walls are lined with Indian miniatures, with counterpoints of kelly green doors, chairs, and waiters' jackets.

I recommend especially the lamb tikka, marinated in a medley of spices, then diced and fried with onions; chicken korma, spiced white meat cooked in a creamy yogurt sauce, with almonds and pistachios; and tandoori chicken, a standard on Indian menus and well prepared here.

At Last Days of the Raj, as elsewhere, an assortment of chutneys is served to add heat and piquancy. Also a ``given'' is the rice, always light and fluffy, often served with bits of nuts or perfumed cardamom.

One of my favorite Indian restaurants in London is Woodlands, 77 Marylebone Lane, near the main shopping street, Oxford Circus. It's a South Indian vegetarian restaurant, and its specialties are truly unusual.

A mainstay of this regional cooking style is the dosa, a large, paper-thin, somewhat greasy, but absolutely delicious pancake served with a choice of different side dishes.

Paper masala dosa, for instance, comes with a side order of spicy potatoes mixed with lentils, green peas, and onions. The procedure is to put the mixture on the dosa, then add a bit of one or two sauces -- coconut-cilantro or lightly spiced tamarind.

Lemon rice with raita is another good Woodlands dish. A mountain of turmeric-seasoned, yellow rice tossed with lentils and nuts, it is served with a sauce of raita.

Three other Indian restaurants highly recommendable are all near one another on Westbourne Grove: Kahn's, The Standard, and Kyber Pass. Fancier, in fact stunning to look at, and also reliable is Shezan, a Pakistani restaurant at 16 Cheval Place.

If you venture further afield, to York, say, try Akash Tandoori (its mild Kurma, hot Madras, and superhot Vindaloo dishes are standouts); in Bath, there's the popular Rajput.

In fact, after just discovering Diwan-e-am in the tiny town of Hexham, near Hadrian's Wall in Northumberland, close to the Scottish border, I suspect that you can't get too far off the track to find, most anywhere, a delicious little touch of India in England.

Patricia Brooks is restaurant reviewer and columnist for the Connecticut section of the New York Times and a free-lance food and travel writer. -- 30 --

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