Hooray for Bollywood

As soon as we opened the car door outside of Sher-e-Punjab on a recent Saturday night, the aroma of cumin and spice was appetizingly present. This seemed like a good sign; the mostly empty parking lot didn’t. Then we spotted a group of young Indian men walking toward the restaurant. That seemed like a good sign, too, until they went into the Subway next door.

We decided to forget about trying to read the signs and went on in. Like many suburban ethnic restaurants, Sher-e-Punjab has its setting to overcome; it’s located in a former Lyons. The booths are comfy, but the layout screams old-school coffee shop. Sher-e-Punjab, however, is fighting the good fight with its décor. I was briefly taken with an Indian spinning wheel, prettily inlaid with mother-of-pearl designs and balanced on an exposed beam high overhead, before I quickly became transfixed by the flat-screen TV that is the restaurant’s focal point. It played a constant stream of Bollywood musical numbers.

I don’t know what it is about Indian musicals, but on the rare occasions when I see them, I can’t stop watching. The images on the screen shifted from black-and-white to dazzling color. Some seemed to have been made in the 1970s, with the actors in Western dress, and others featured performers in glittering saris. My friend took one look at my hypnotized face and twisted around to watch, too. If you go to Sher-e-Punjab, try to snag a table from which both people can see the screen. Otherwise, you’ll spend the meal gazing at the back of your dining partner’s head.

It took us a long time to decide what to order, in part because we were distracted by the television and in part because the menu is very long. It emphasizes familiar northern Indian standards, as well as some less common possibilities.

We decided to try both the known and the unknown, which, for appetizers, meant an order of vegetable samosas as well as cholay bhature—a dish of earthy spiced garbanzo beans and two pieces of soft, golden fried flatbread. If you’ve ever had fried dough at a fair, flaky bhature (the bread) will seem familiar. Sher-e-Punjab’s bread was fresh, hot and quite delicious when dipped into the sauce of the garbanzos.

The samosa appetizer was good, too. The samosas weren’t notably different from those at other restaurants, but Sher-e-Punjab placed them on top of crunchy lettuce and a spoonful of the spiced garbanzo beans, plus red onion and cilantro. The salad was a nice touch, as my friend commented. The contrasts of flavor, texture and temperature elevated the dish above the average.

One dish that I had never seen elsewhere was listed among the menu’s “vegetarian delights.” Most of the dishes had a parenthetical explanation after the name; Gobhi Manchurian just said “house specialty.” The server explained that it was cauliflower, battered, fried and seasoned with soy sauce. It sounded weird but interesting, so we ordered it. It tasted vaguely Chinese but definitely Indian. Its spices were mild, and it was mahogany-colored from the seasoning. It was like a culinary version of a Bollywood movie, I thought: a strange and even perplexing hybrid for the uninitiated, but appealing and kind of addictive.

We also tried tandoori shrimp, which came on a sizzling platter rested in a beat-up plate wrapped in scrunched foil, an odd contrast to the lovely copper vessels that held the other dishes. The tandoori had a fantastic aroma—we had been enviously eyeing other tables as their dinners were carried by and the smell wafted to us—but the shrimp were a little tough.

I am rarely able to resist chicken tikka masala, the rich and mild dish that now seems to be required at all Indian restaurants in America. It’s probably not something a true aficionado would order, but damn it’s yummy. We got that, too, on the suggestion of the server. It was a tasty rendition, with slightly more complex spicing than usual, but the same luscious sauce—perfect for dipping naan. Sher-e-Punjab offers more than a dozen Indian breads. We tried one with mint, which I liked for its unusual, herbaceous flavor.

For dessert, the rice pudding was disappointing. Slightly stale-tasting bits of rice floated in too much milk. Instead, I’d stick to the sweet drinks. We tried a pistachio milkshake with a hint of cardamom. The shake was a refreshing, not-too-sweet concoction of milk and ice, rather than a familiar triple-thick American-style milkshake. It was the exact color my mother mistakenly painted her bathroom a few months ago: a pale, minty blue-green. It was a little much for a whole room (my mom has since repainted), but it was appealing in the milkshake.

While we were there, the restaurant filled up. Sher-e-Punjab also does catering, and there was a large Indian family party celebrating a graduation, with the women in saris that managed to outshine those on the screen. Located at Marconi Avenue and Fair Oaks Boulevard, Sher-e-Punjab also offers an inexpensive lunch buffet, making it a good choice if you find yourself in the suburbs—or if you’re just craving a Bollywood fix to go with your lunch or dinner.