Mon Sher-E

You'll Fall In Love With Sher-E Punjab's Mouthwatering Buffet.

By Rebecca Cook

IN THE HUSTLE and bustle of restaurant reviewing, I sometimes lose track of the foods I love the most. Depending on my review schedule, I can go long weeks without a hint of Mexican food, a glimmer of sparkling fresh sushi or even a whiff of the high-caloric pleasure of a juicy cheeseburger and fries.

Add to this list of favorites Indian food, which I dearly love but seldom get the opportunity to savor. How fortunate that a new restaurant, Sher-e Punjab, has recently opened its doors. With its exquisite variations of curry, tandoori and dal, this restaurant could soon challenge some of the local stalwarts as the best place to enjoy Indian cuisine in all of Tucson.

Chow In enumerating Sher-e Punjab's many virtues, I may seem to lapse into unforgivable fits of hyperbole. But trust me--the food here is roundly excellent, leaving no room for exaggeration.

A hallmark of Indian cuisine is its rich complexity of spices, many quite foreign to the American palate. Historically located along various trade routes, Indian cooking evolved with the infusion of several foods, herbs, spices and techniques from China, Southeast Asia and the Middle East. The result is a mosaic of tastes and textures that's as delicious as it is novel. If you haven't yet had the inclination to explore this crown jewel of world cuisines, wait no more.

Begin your tutelage with Sher-e Punjab's daily all-you-can-eat lunch buffet ($4.99), an assortment of no fewer than 10 dishes covering the breadth of the restaurant's extensive menu.

Aside from the tandoori chicken and vegetable samosas, the items on the buffet vary every day, making it possible to dine there a few times a week and never have the same thing twice. Vegetarians will be pleased to find at least four of the buffet dishes sans meat, with ample portions of naan bread, tossed green salad and basmati rice rounding out each meal.

One of the general pitfalls of buffet dining is that such quantities tend to produce dishes that lack distinction. Sher-e Punjab's offerings are a remarkable exception to that rule; every dish retains its own aroma and flavor, inspiring adventurous diners to new heights of indulgence. Not great for your waistline, but it's a phenomenal value.

And even if you're not a fan of curry, the vegetable samosas alone garner high praise. These deep-fried pastry pockets are usually treated as an appetizer, but one could easily make a meal of this scrumptious side dish. Although a variation using ground lamb is available from the regular menu, the one on the buffet is stuffed with a tasty filling of potato, coriander, cumin and a spark of cayenne. Both are encased in a delicate puff pastry so light it belies their greasy preparation. Condiments such as a piquant mint chutney, tangy tamarind sauce and cool yogurt raita are also offered in abundance.

Another quintessential component of the Indian kitchen is the tandoor oven, a rounded brick or clay kiln in which foods are baked in the heat of a smoky wood fire (Sher-e Punjab embraces the region by using mesquite). The flat dough for naan bread is slapped directly into the oven to bake until puffed and lightly brown.

Naan accompanies almost every Indian meal, and its spongy texture and gently smoky accents are a welcome addition to the aromatic fare. In addition to the simplest version of naan, Sher-e Punjab adds garlic, onion and cheese options ($1.35-$2.25). All are superb. Meats cooked tandoori style are marinated first in a mixture of lemon juice, yogurt, garlic and an assortment of spices such as cardamom, ginger, cumin, coriander and crushed red pepper, from which the meat takes on a fiery red hue.

Seared and cooked to perfection, Sher-e Punjab's chicken retains its full allotment of tenderness and gusto. Even sitting out on a buffet for an indeterminate amount of time doesn't compromise the quality of this meat (perhaps that's because it's so good, it disappears from its dish before it even has time to cool). A tandoori shrimp also deviates from the norm ($8.50), with a half-dozen plump crustaceans seared, seasoned and served with slices of fresh white onion, green pepper and a fresh lemon wedge.

Although I was unable to find a single dish that failed to please, I developed a predilection for their palak paneer, a mixture of chopped spinach, Indian cheese (something like cottage cheese), onion, ginger, tomato, lemon and a splash of spices such as coriander, cumin, pepper and dried mustard. Swirling in its aluminum vat, this dish isn't much to look at, but oh my, is it delectable when scooped up with a piece of warm naan.

The lentil dal is another dish where appearances can deceive. A combination of pink and black lentils simmer in a scintillating sauce of turmeric, onion, garlic, cumin and cardamom. It's perfect with a serving of the vegetable-flecked basmati rice. Curries are full bodied and uniformly excellent, with several variations on the theme. Chicken, vegetable and fish curries figure prominently here, each in varying degrees of intensity.

One of the many nice things at Sher-e Punjab is that they cater to a variety of palates when it comes to the definition of spicy. Without disappointing the devout, they also recognize many American diners simply aren't ready for really hot food. Many of the buffet dishes emit a modicum of heat, but most diners can easily avoid anything too frightening.

And for those who like to scorch and burn, Sher-e Punjab is happy to oblige. I recommend a detour into the steamy world of vindaloo curries, where a blend of red chiles and tamarind reigns supreme. Bless that diligent server circulating through the dining room solely to refill water glasses gone dry.

A short list of lamb dishes is featured at Sher-e Punjab, as well as a few beef entrees, the latter being somewhat striking given the cow's sacred status in much of the Indian world. I had no qualms about sampling a beef curry however, which proved a stew of high standing. Tender chunks of beef, potato, tomato and onion swam elegantly in a silky gravy seasoned with those distinctive Indian spices.

Rice pudding, syrupy pastry rounds called "gulab jaman," mango and pistachio kufee (Indian ice cream), and an ice-cream cheesecake round out the dessert menu, if you have any room.

No matter what my professional obligations dicate, I'll never again neglect the singular pleasure of Indian cuisine. When a place as good as Sher-e Punjab comes along, you find a way to work it into your schedule.

Sher-e Punjab. 853 E. Grant Road. 624-9373. Open 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., and 5 to 10 p.m. Lunch buffet offered daily. Beer and wine. V, MC, AMEX, DC, checks. Menu items: $1.50-$10.50. TW

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