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Thali Ho!

The Ayurveda Cafe doesn't offer a massage with every one of its Indian vegetarian meals -- but if any food has the power to soothe and relax, this is it.

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Ever since he submitted his tension-racked body to an oily, slow-motion massage in Kerala, the paradisial state at the southwestern tip of India, the Underground Gourmet has been well-disposed toward Ayurveda, a holistic system of well-being that has kept Indians in fine physical and mental fettle for thousands of years, and there is no reason why it should not do the same for New Yorkers. So raise your glass of lassi, and toast the arrival of Ayurveda Cafe (706 Amsterdam Avenue, at 94th Street; 932-2400). This vegetarian place is just wonderful.

Ayurveda's presence is signaled by a nothing-special orange awning, and its décor seemed at first glance to be similarly halfhearted -- walls painted in wishy-washy pastels, unremarkable furnishings, and a table bearing an unconvincing assortment of objects: candles, colorful spices, and an incongruously large box of a purely decorative appearance. Burbling instrumental music from the subcontinent added a final, sonic touch of banality. But as the evening progressed and a deep and joyful calm overcame the Underground Gourmet, it occurred to me that my surroundings may have contributed to this excellent mood swing and that my first impressions of them might have been horribly false. This turned out to be the case. Tirlok Malik, an actor-film producer who co-owns the restaurant with Om Bansal, revealed that its every detail is calculated to promote harmony and health. Orange is a healing color; the walls' soft hues and the untaxing music have a soothing effect; the candles emit therapeutic aromas; and the "magic box" contains spiritual messages printed on colored slips of paper for the customers to ponder as they travel home: food for thought to go.

What's materially edible is a prix fixe, preset, eat-as-much-as-you-want meal (dinner $9.95, lunch $5.95, drinks extra) consisting of ten items whose composition changes daily but which always features the six essential tastes: salty, sweet, sour, bitter, astringent, and pungent. In other words, pick a nonalcoholic drink (a cool mango lassi, $2.50, is filling yet light as sorbet), forgo the stress of food decision-making, and sit back until served with a thali plate of surprises. Expect ghee (the clarified butter that makes Indian food so tasty but so hard on the digestive system) to be kept to a minimum, and expect fiendishly deft mixes of the 26 spices (salt, fenugreek, paprika, aniseed, etc.) kept in the kitchen. The food taps into the cooking of all parts of India and is subtle, light, and refreshing.

For dinner, having made short work of a delicious, chickpea appetizer, you might polish off stewed spinach and mushrooms whose natural flavors cohere with delicately spicy curry sauce; rejuvenate the palate with a mouthful of undressed chopped salad; scarf a potato smothered in a hot and earthy masala sauce; cool down with a mouthful of raita redolent of cumin and coriander; intermittently fork up saffron-and-jasmine-scented basmati rice; and wipe your thali dishes clean with the steaming and nongreasy tandoori roti (bread). And yes, there's the ubiquitous dal for those who like it sour, and, for taste sluts, tamarind and coriander chutneys. A feathery mango custard or a coconutty, chilled rice-noodle pudding brings the feast to a sweet close. You're left -- and here's the key -- sated yet clear-eyed.

Ayurveda Cafe is a draw for connoisseurs of Indian food, but it remains a soulfully unassuming neighborhood spot. Between 4 and 5.30 p.m., all are welcome for tea (either mint or spiced with cinnamon and cardamom) and conversation (which may be spiced with the poems and problems that customers are encouraged to bring along). There's more to life than eating.

Ayurveda Cafe is open seven days a week, from 11:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. All major credit cards.


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