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Illustrious Indian

Fragrant, luscious sauces tempt the taste buds at this popular midtown spot

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People often ask me for restaurant recommendations. I hesitate to answer because, in spite of the fact that it's my job to review restaurants, I'm not sure of their personal preferences or palates. I've recommended a few, of course, and now I have one that I can add to that limited list.

Sher-e Punjab is a wonderful neighborhood spot offering a full slate of food from India. The name implies Northern Indian food, but what makes this place so special is their "home-style" cooking. Sauces are sublime, ingredients are fresh, there is a variety of offerings to please any palate and the space is a quiet respite even when every table is filled.

The menu is long with many of the dishes varying only in the protein used. I'm usually not a fan of long menus but here it works. Vegetarians can rejoice in the twenty plus options. Basmati rice choices are also plentiful. Naan comes any number of ways. You can have your meal prepared "to your personal taste—mild, medium, spicy or extra spicy." We opted for medium although if I were to visit again I'd go with the spicy.

The room is awash in golden tones accented with ruby red in the tablecloths. Mirrored panels make the room seem bigger. Indian print curtains keep the outside world at bay (you'd never guess you're dining at a strip mall) and the music is slightly muted. Dining here is relaxing and comfortable.

I love samosas ($2.99) and I have to say these were perhaps the best I've ever had. We chose the keema samosas which were stuffed with finely ground lamb, peas and onions. The two good-sized packets came to the table hot out of the fryer. Crispy and crackling and almost too hot to hold, we used a knife and fork. When we cut into them the meat spilled out. The peas and onions were at a minimum but that was a good thing. The samosas were spicy, but not overly so. All that was needed to make these a perfect starter was a spoonful of the dark, sweet tamarind sauce that was set on the table (finely chopped chiles were the other condiment).

We also tried the shrimp pakora appetizer ($4.99). The order consisted of about ten medium shrimp. Traditionally made with chickpea flour, the coating was light and savory without a trace of grease. Inside the shrimp was perfectly tender. While not as dramatic as the samosas the pakoras were tasty. If shrimp isn't your thing, this appetizer comes with a variety of fillings including a slew of vegetable options.

Entrées were just as delightful. We tried to get a balance of items, but there were so may too choose from. Lamb was a must and we also ordered one of the many vegetarian dishes. We also had a chicken dish and a fish dish.

One visit we ordered plain naan ($1.35) and on the other paneer prantha ($2.45).

The lamb shahi korma ($9.50) has cubes of lamb cooked in a creamy yogurt sauce that is thickened with cashews. The meat was fork-tender and flavorful, but it was the sauce that made this dish. Golden, tangy, nutty, creamy, not too thick, the sauce would've worked with any sort of protein or vegetable. We used the naan ($1.35) to sop up as much of this flavorful sauce as possible.

The chicken choice was chicken makhni ($8.50.) Again the sauce made the dish. Reddish in hue—thanks to tomatoes­—and flecked with spices, there was some heat but it was slow and lingering. This is the kind of dish you order again.

The fish in the tikka masala was some sort of white fish. This is one of dishes that we should've ordered spicier. The sauce was rich and creamy and redolent with a whole mix of spices, but all the elements would've benefited with a little more heat.

This time we ordered the paneer prantha ($2.45). There was a decided difference between the naan and the prantha (aside from the paneer stuffing.) The prantha (their spelling) was courser, crispier with a wash of butter. I only wish there had been more than one piece per order. Next time I'll double down.

We ordered two desserts: pistachio kulfee ($2.99) and gulab jaman ($2.50).Kulfee is described as Indian-style ice cream on the menu. The dish resembles ice cream but the texture is less creamy. It was frozen solid but you could taste the finely ground nuts (cashews are also involved.) The gulab jaman consisted of two ping pong ball-sized balls of sweet dough drenched in a sweet, sticky syrup. These called for a cup of strong black coffee or tea, but were gone in a flash.

The well-appointed lunch buffet seems to be quite popular. In fact, people were waiting for tables during our lunch visit.

As different as all the dishes that we tried were, the thing that made each of those dishes shine was how all the ingredients came together. Cumin, coriander, cinnamon, turmeric, ginger, chiles, nuts, yogurt, sweets, sours, meats, vegetables, whatever ingredient that went into each dish created a balance in taste and texture. Nothing dominated; everything in unison.

I honestly can't wait to return to Sher-e-Punjab. With so many choices­—especially at the lunch buffet­—it just might mean more than one visit.

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