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Indian restaurants in Manhattan have an odd tendency to cluster. East 6th Street between First and Second avenues has dozens (the running joke is that there is one giant kitchen under the block); Murray Hill, too; and East 58th Street between Second and Third avenues has an esteemed group of its own. The leader of that particular pack is Chola. Like all good Indian restaurants, the dining room is filled with heady and spicy aromas. It's a warm and inviting long space, subtly lit, with a long cream leather banquette, cozy low ceilings sporting gaudy chandeliers and pea-green walls hung with odd geometric art. Executive chef/owner Shiva Natarajan favors dishes from both Northern and less familiar Southern India, where seafood and vegetarian fare are preferred. His menu is the largest I've ever seen in an Indian restaurant. And unlike a large number of otherwise good Indian restaurants I could name, Chola is not afraid to prepare and serve quite spicy dishes. Service is friendly, though because so many of the dishes are cooked to order, you may experience arrhythmia from course to course. Chapati, bubbly and blistered crisp flatbread, is brought the moment you are seated, with that magical trio of chutneys: mango, cilantro and red onion (which I could live on). There's an especially good beer menu, and cocktails can be unusual and unusually large. "Kerala Kootum" is a slightly foamy, sweet blend of Dykuper peach schnapps, vodka and lime juice, finished with a few curry leaves. Juicy Cochin lamb rib chops make a sublime beginning. The tips of the Frenched bones are enclosed to ease pick up, and the chops have been rubbed with a haunting blend of spices before grilling. Steamy chicken vindaloo is a fairly spicy tomatoed curry stew with Portuguese origins. It has lovely complexity and lingering heat. Ruddy lamb phaal is touted on the menu as "very spicy" and it certainly is, though the hottest phaal-in fact, the hottest and most punishing dish-in Manhattan that I've found is the phaal at Brick Lane Curry House down on East 6th Street, where they will give a free beer to anyone who can finish the dish. Chola's phaal (chicken, lamb, vegetable or shrimp) has more layers of flavor, with crunchy bits of ginger, green chilies, and plenty of fresh cilantro commingling with the tender cubes of lamb shoulder. If your forehead doesn't need to be mopped after two mouthfuls of phaal, you should consider seeing a doctor. Chola's rasmalai-patties of homemade farmer's cheese in sweet milk with saffron and cardamom-is some of the best I've ever tasted, with that firm wet-dry texture and just the right sweetness. Gulab jamun is even better: warm soft cheese balls in a gentle syrup. Like Japanese restaurants, Indian eatieries are not known for their great desserts. Chola is a real exception. -- Chola 232 E. 58th St. Betw. Second and Third aves. 212-688-4619 Entrées: $15 to $25 -- [](

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