Indian restaurants used to be a rarity in Los Angeles. Now, like Thai restaurants, they are trickling down to the neighborhood level. In Wilshire Boulevard's Miracle Mile, your friendly, reasonably priced, neighborhood Indian restaurant is Sher-e Punjab. Sher-e means tiger, which would be a fierce name for such an unassuming place except that this restaurant is unique. An accident of location has made it possibly the only Indian restaurant anywhere that one enters through a camera. This happened because Sher-e Punjab took up lodging in what was once the Darkroom, a photography shop. That business is long gone, but its camera-like facade remains.
Within, the focus is strictly Indian. Overhead, a wedding canopy in a brilliant jumble of colors lines the ceiling, giving the impression of a tent. Elephants track up and down one wall. And throbbing Indian music vibrates deep into the soul--a lovely illusion, until I learned that the pulsing rhythms came not from the music but from workouts at a neighboring health club.
The kitchen has the usual tandoor, the searingly hot oven that is important to Punjabi cuisine. Good tandoor entrees at Sher-e Punjab are ginger kebab, a chicken dish in which intense flavor penetrates well into the meat, and sausage-like sheekh kebab, made from ground lamb. Tandoori chicken and lamb boti kebab must have dallied in the oven the night I had them. Both were dry. But the chef has a sure hand with tandoor breads such as garlic naan and onion-stuffed kulcha. Salad comes with the tandoori dishes, and spiced basmati rice, another dish that tends to be dry, accompanies most entrees.
Sher-e Punjab offers four styles of curry that are made with either chicken, beef or lamb. In addition to a decent basic curry, there is dahi, which includes yogurt; vindaloo, which adds potatoes and peas, and palak, which blends the meat with spinach cooked to baby-food consistency (a description of the texture, not a criticism).
Menu explanations are a bit coy. Chicken tikka masala is "cooked with our secret sauces," and chicken makhani is tandoor-roasted, then "cooked with our special tomatoes, butter and curry sauce." Different dishes? No. Both have the same sauce. The distinction is, the tikka masala is boneless, the makhani is not. Colorwise, the bright orange sauce reminded me of canned tomato soup. Flavorwise, the curry is much more assertive and not only hot but a bit tangy from the yogurt in which the chicken is marinated.
One could put together a satisfactory vegetarian meal here from an assortment of vegetable dishes and legumes. Indian style cheese (paneer) that is made on the premises is mixed with green peas for matar paneer and with spiced spinach for saag paneer. Indian cooks see no reason not to combine vegetables with fruit, so a vegetable korma includes apples and raisins along with cauliflower, potatoes, peas and carrots. Cashews also go into the potpourri, which is bound together with a cream sauce. Another worthwhile dish is bengan bhartha (roasted eggplant cooked with curry sauce), which is fluffy in texture, resembling a vegetable souffle.
As starters, there are pakoras (vegetable fritters) and samosas (fried turnovers stuffed with spiced potato and peas), which become very tasty when eaten with mint chutney and sweet tamarind sauce.
The two desserts are an insipid rice pudding (kheer) and syrup-soaked fried balls of dough (gulab jamin). These little sweets were salty at the edges one time but much better on the second try.
Sher-e Punjab serves two brands of Indian beer and some very ordinary house wine. Non-alcoholic beverages include yogurt-based lassi and melon and mango milk shakes, which are not as rich as they sound. There is also milky, sweet, spiced Indian tea, which on a cold night seems to me the most satisfying choice.
Sher-e Punjab Restaurant, 5370 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, (213) 933-2031. Open 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5 to 10:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday; 5 to 10:30 p.m. Sunday. Major credit cards accepted. Free parking in lot behind the restaurant.