Naan stop action!

In case you haven't noticed, Uptown is hot again.

And it has nothing to do with that Starbucks on the corner of Lawrence and Broadway. Or the new Borders Cafe across the street from the Starbucks. Or the new home of Chicago comedy fixture the Annoyance Theater, which opened this summer. Or even Agami, that big, shiny, sushi restaurant with an interior that looks like Disney opened a maki amusement park.

These harbingers of urban renewal may sell condos, but they've got nothing on the lamb vindaloo at month-old Uptown restaurant Marigold. This dish is so hot it should be served on an asbestos plate.

Co-owner Laurel Malhotra tells us that the vindaloo is presented with a warning: On a 10-point spiciness scale, it's a 12. We're glad we weren't warned. We would have passed on a dish that challenged our tastebuds but nicely illustrated what Marigold is all about: traditional fare served with bold, modern zing.

Don't get us wrong: Marigold isn't some newfangled fusion spot. It's just not exactly what you'll find up on Devon Avenue. Malhotra and her husband, Sandeep, both of whom are frequent business travelers (Laurel works for a Tribune-owned company), were inspired by the modern Indian restaurants they've found in India and London.

With the help of chef Monica Riley, Marigold serves familiar Indian fare--including some of Sandeep's family recipes--with up-to-date flair. That lamb vindaloo ($17.95), for instance, is served whole-shank and offers a layered flavor profile that's more complex than just the heat. (You can moderate the heat with a side of yogurt.)

Saag paneer ($5.25) combines fresh, housemade cheese and leafy, sauteed spinach instead of the creamy version you might find elsewhere. Refinements like cute pyramid-shaped servings of basmati rice add to the effect. The saag paneer and the rice are available individually or as part of the vegetarian thali ($13.95), a sampler that also includes spicy chickpeas (chana masala) and savory eggplant.

There are also plenty of dishes for non-heatseekers, including a coriander-encrusted halibut ($18.25) and yogurt-marinated lamb chops ($19.25).

Marigold's atmosphere reflects the culinary approach--Indian without the cliches. The space is understated, refined and approachable. Look for funky twists like comfy seating cubes and tufted wall panels. Marigold will be a natural pre-theater or pre-Green Mill stop. But be warned: This spot's still new enough that the pacing of the courses is uneven--allow plenty of time to eat. (Luckily, you won't have to go far to make a show at the Annoyance. It's right next door.)

Noting the lag between our appetizers and first course, our server offered apologies and, even better, an on-the-house dessert of pistachio-specked kulfi ice cream ($4.95). Other dessert options include a truffle trio ($7.95), which features red curry dark chocolate. Servers here are trained to be friendly and to know a chaat masala from a chana masala, so you won't be embarrassed to ask about unfamiliar ingredients. Still, it might take some time before the training pays off. Our waiter was stumped by a few more basic questions, such as, "What's in the roasted fruit chutney?" (Turns out it was roasted plums with pineapple.)

And it's chutney worth knowing about. In addition to the roasted fruit variety, you can choose from mint, tamarind, or onion and date. Can't decide? Order a trio ($4.95). We wish, however, that it came with a side of naan; an extra order is $2.95.Another bonus: drinks. Specialty martinis include an apple chaat ($8.95) made with cinnamon schnapps and Apple Pucker.

More important, someone thought through the nice-sized international wine list; about half of the selections are offered by the glass, most in the $8 to $9 range. Filled with interesting gewurztraminers, reislings and other spice-friendly wines, the list won't leave you struggling to find a nice pairing--even when your tongue is on fire.

[ Chris LaMorte is the metromix dining producer. ] clamorte@tribune.com

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