Shrimp Pakora at Cafe Spice

Shrimp Pakora, baby shrimp deep fried in chickpea batter for $8.99 is served at Cafe Spice in Cockeysville. (Algerina Perna, Baltimore Sun / July 19, 2011)

With all the strip malls and traffic, York Road can get monotonous and frustrating. Step inside Cafe Spice and, almost immediately, you feel like you're miles away from the bustling suburban streetscape.

Paintings and draperies spruce up the walls of the Cockeysville Indian restaurant, and colorful umbrellas hang upside-down from the ceiling alongside chandeliers. Together, they help transform what could be an otherwise drab, corrugated metal ceiling into an eye-catching presentation.

After being seated, the free basket of papadum was also a welcome sight. The thin, cracker-like flatbreads were crisp and salty. A dip in either the mint or tamarind chutneys tempered the saltiness and added a burst of flavor that kick-started our taste buds.

Did you know there was an Indian version of the burrito? Well, neither did we, but the seekh kebab katti roll ($7.99) is just that. A seekh kebab is ground meat mixed with seasonings, grilled and served with onions. The roll featured that as well as saucy peppers and cilantro.

We could have eaten a couple of these, but the shrimp pakora ($8.99) made us glad we didn't. The incredibly crunchy shrimp were tender inside and dusted with a fragrant Indian spice blend. A dipping sauce would have been welcome, though.

It's important to point out that Cafe Spice is BYOB, but they do have interesting drink choices. The mango lassi ($3.99), a mixture of mango puree and yogurt, was creamy and fruity but would have been better if it were colder. Its doppelganger, the salty lassi ($3.99) was thin yogurt mixed with salt, mint and fried cumin seed. It was strangely refreshing when put up against our appetizers.

The service at Cafe Spice was topsy-turvy. Our waitress, who was unfamiliar with the menu and unhelpful when asked for recommendations, was buoyed by another server who was affable, courteous and brought us our entrees when our server was busy.

Our entrees, while similar, showed the diversity in the menu options. The vegetarian choices are vast at Cafe Spice, and the vegetable korma ($12.99) is the standard-bearer. The mixture of carrots, peas, lima beans, string beans and potatoes in a fiery cream sauce was satisfying yet still light.

The goat mughlai ($16.99) was a dish taken from the "Popular Regional Indian Curry Delicacies" section of the menu — in which different curry sauces are paired with chicken, lamb, goat, fish and shrimp. Goat is not a regular at the American table, but would be if more people tried Cafe Spice's preparation. The meat was fall-off-the-bone tender and would stand up to the best spareribs. The sauce was mild, velvety and topped with cheese. Both entrees were served with saffron rice.

Sides of flatbreads are a must when eating Indian food, and the Kashmiri naan ($3.99) and pudina paratha ($3.99) didn't disappoint. The naan was filled with sweet minced fruits and nuts, while the charred and buttery paratha was flaky and fragrant from the mint inside.

A quick plea to servers: Please box up your customer's food. Our server did not, and she was not the first we saw who brought empty boxes and bags to the tables and then left. When you make patrons box their own food, they risk ruining their clothes or making a fool of themselves in front of a date. It doesn't take that much time, and your tip might be better for it.

Dessert, unfortunately, turned out to be the low point of the meal. The Masala tea ($2.50), with its floral and peppery taste, was a good starting point. But the flavorful homemade pistachio ice cream ($4.99) was icy in the middle and dense on the outside. Kheer ($4.99), while sounding exotic, was only a mediocre rice pudding with few raisins and little flavor. Before we could finish them, our waitress took both the ice cream and the chai from under us without asking.

While Baltimore City and Baltimore County have their share of good Indian restaurants, Cafe Spice is better than most. The decor is worth the trip alone, but the food will make you want to return for more.

Cafe Spice

Back story: Formerly located in Towson, Cafe Spice's owner decided the parking situation and the liquor license were too much hassle and moved to Cockeysville.

Parking: The restaurant has ample parking in front, which it shares with a prominent coffee franchise and an Italian restaurant.

Suggested dish: The meat in the goat mughlai is fall-off-the-bone tender, and the sauce was mild, velvety and topped with cheese.

Where: 10540 York Rd., Suite 102, Cockeysville

Contact: 410-891-8740, cafespicemd.com

Open: 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday

Credit Cards: Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Discover

Appetizers: $3.99-$8.99

Entrees: $11.99-$19.99

Food: ✭✭✭

Service: ✭✭1/2

Atmosphere: ✭✭✭1/2

[Outstanding: ✭✭✭✭✭; good: ✭✭✭; fair or uneven: ✭✭; poor: ✭]