Nawab at Hilltop is a Garden of Indian Delights

A renovated 7-Eleven and onetime bagel shop in the Hilltop section of Virginia Beach is now the inviting and warm Nawab Indian Cuisine. It's the second Nawab - the first, on Military Highway in Norfolk , is six years old.

Decorated with aqua-colored, high backed booths, silk flower arrangement and delicate brass lights, the new Nawab on First Colonial Road began serving in December.

Like the first, this Nawab is a restaurant where both vegetarians and meat eaters can agree. Unlike the one or two dishes placed on a menu to please the "other side," this menu, among the multitude of chicken, lamb and seafood dishes (and a surprising steak), offers 15 vegetarian specialties.

At lunch, seven items are offered, or you can choose the buffet, which offers more for a mere $5.95. It was not the quantity alone that swayed us to indulge in the buffet; it was the quality that clinched it. The buffet looked fresh, hot and well maintained. Looks were not deceiving.

Vegetable Pakora ($2.95) spinach or onion "fritters" made from a lentil batter, were crunchy and greaseless. The same fritters were at the end of the line dressed up as "kardhi pakora," in a fragrant garlic and homemade yogurt sauce. Another tasty vegetarian dish, "matar paneer" ($7.95), was a fresh Indian cheese, resembling mozzarella, shaped in rectangular planks and served in a slightly sweet sauce with peas.

In addition to cucumbers, onions and tomatoes in a light marinade, two salads were offered. A simple salad of iceberg lettuce, cucumbers and tomatoes was ordinary until you added your choice of homemade dressings. The cucumber yogurt was fresh and delightful. The other salad, iceberg lettuce with bits of grilled chicken tossed with a creamy herb dressing was addictive.

Tandoori chicken, on the buffet and on our return visit's combination platters, came as moist, well-seasoned, reddish meat. You can have your pick of items prepared in the tandoor, a clay pit oven where wood charcoal is aglow.

>The tandoor is also responsible for the freshly baked breads. Naan ($1.75), a traditional white bread, is offered on the buffet and with two of the three combination dinners. Naan is similar to pita bread, only lighter and fluffier.

During the first visit, our discarded plates were not regularly cleared and we had to get the attention of the server to receive refills of water. Our return visit delivered much better service. "Papadum" crispy, peppered wafers made from lentil flour, was complimentary at dinner with a mint, chutney so well-balanced with cilantro and spices that a non-mint fan gobbled it up. Chicken pakora ($3.50), tender strips of spiced chicken lightly fried in a lentil-flour batter, was served with tamarind chutney - a sweet and savory sauce for dipping.

A choice of soup came with both the Nawab Special ($14.95) and the Dieter's Delight ($14.95).

We chose wisely with Nawabi Shorba ($1.95), a flavorful spiced chicken and spinach puree. A spiced lentil soup, Mulligatawny ($1.95) is also offered.

The Dieter's Delight allowed us to enjoy another appetizer, "chat papri" ($2.95). Spiced potato cubes and chickpeas were decorated with tamarind chutney and yogurt sauce like an ice cream sundae. Crisp wafers were served on the perimeter.

Three good sized fan tailed shrimp, a chicken breast quarter and fish were delivered to our "dieter" hot out of the tandoor from a sizzling skillet. Vegetable curry, basamati rice and roti - unleavened whole wheat bread - completed the plentiful and aptly named Dieter's Delight.

From the same sizzling skillet, a tandoori chicken leg quarter and boti kebab - a cube of lamb cooked closer to medium than the requested rare, was part of the Nawab Special ($14.95). Chicken curry and vegetable korma with rice and bread completed the special. Instead of chicken, you can substitute lamb and with this dish, you choose your curry strength; mild, medium, hot or Indian hot. We found medium to be just right.

Vegetable Korma (available as an entrée for $7.95) is, according to the menu, nine vegetables cooked in spices and sprinkled with nuts. We enjoyed the dish served in a velvety sauce and further enriched with large cashews.

Lamb chops tandoori ($15.95), three rare, lean and plump chops, were expertly delivered off the skillet. The lamb, full of flavor from a marinade of ginger, herbs and spices, is the most expensive dinner on the menu. It is worth every penny and more.

With such an abundance of delicious food, one could forego dessert, but I don't recommend it.

At lunch we ordered "gulab jamun" ($2.50) and "kulfi" ($2.50) because we found the rice pudding on the buffet to be soupy and uninspired. Gulab jamun, light cheese morsel dipped in a light honey syrup, reminded us of fluffy pancake balls. Kulfi, cylinder-shaped ice cream made with milk, was sliced in bite-sized medallions and sprinkled with chopped pistachios. It reminded us of ice milk, only creamier and much preferred.

For both visits, the kulfi was a sweet ending to a sweet meal

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Reviews are based on two unannounced visits by a party of two or three, unless otherwise noted. The Virginian Pilot pays for the reviewer's meal and those of the guests.