A colleague came to see me, looking stricken: “What happened to Star of India?” Beats me, I said. Hadn’t been to the Kenmore restaurant in years and an owner ago. “The chicken palak,” she said plaintively, her eyes searching mine for a sign I understood. Nope, I said, but I’ll see what I can find out. After several hungry people made similar inquiries, I started wondering what I missed. Then in September a scout reported that Jewel of India on Hertel Avenue was now operated by the former Star crew, who renamed it New Jewel of India. After dinner there I finally understood my colleague’s pangs of palak deprivation. From bread to biryani to sizzling tandoor platters, New Jewel of India served me the best Indian meal I’ve found in Buffalo. ¶ I’ve eaten in every Indian or Pakistani restaurant in Western New York. I’ve found outstanding dishes, like Taj Grill’s Manchurian appetizers and vegetable curries, and Chennai Express’ dosa lineup.
Tandoori’s service and décor is certainly more luxurious.
At New Jewel of India, Buddha, elephants and other Indian symbols adorn the walls, but the interior hasn’t been overhauled in years, with a white, red and green light fixture as a reminder of its past as a succession of Italian restaurants. The tables were covered in plastic, and I noted a bottle of Hidden Valley Ranch salad dressing next to the inactive buffet line. (A lunch buffet, $9.99, runs every day, and a dinner buffet on Thursday.) What makes New Jewel of India stand out, besides a big parking lot on Hertel Avenue, is owner Kulbir Singh’s cooking.
From the complimentary starter bowl of dal (lentil soup), hearty and tangy with lemon, dishes were more assertive than usual. An appetizer of chile paneer ($8.95) had cubes of cheese in a smoky, glossy sauce of tomato, onion and bell pepper. Shrimp Manchurian ($9.95) was small shrimp in a similar sauce, spiked with fresh ginger. I had asked for medium heat, and got an eye-opening dose of smoldering flavor that made me glad I’d only opted for one “hot” number.
Samosas (two for $2.95) and paneer pakora ($3.95) were average. The potato mixture inside the fried turnovers was well-spiced, but the crust was more chewy than flaky. Batons of cheese dipped in chickpea batter and fried were earthy but not crispy. They came with vividly green mint-chile chutney, and a sweet-tangy brown tamarind sauce that had been elevated with a touch of star anise.
Then I dug into the chicken palak, and realized why my colleague pined so. In local restaurants, palak dishes – like their close relatives, saags – are typically built on spinach puree seasoned with garlic, ginger and other spices, smoothed out with cream. They can be soothing but bland beyond chile heat. New Jewel of India’s version was more flavorful. The chicken palak ($12.95) held small chunks of firm chicken breast, cooked to near-tenderness, instead of chewy. Mustard greens added a nutty zing, and other spices that added up to a beguilingly complex flavor that kept drawing my spoon back. (The curry servings at New Jewel of India are larger than some places, too, and palak reheats like a charm.)
A platter of beef seekh kabab ($10.95) arrived sputtering oil, amid a tangle of sliced green bell pepper and onion. But there was no need to apologize for the minor mess once I bit into a crusty beef cylinder and found tender meat full of flavor, with cardamom and a supporting cast of spices.
Biryani, the fragrant basmati rice pilaf, was richer than usual, moist instead of dry-grained. Shrimp biryani ($15.95) included an ample supply of tender shrimp, peas, onion and green bell pepper. Its heat made me glad that we had brought some beer.
Lamb vindaloo ($12.95) was the curry ordered spicy. It rewarded me with the beginning of a perspiring brow, but it could have been spicier without causing pain. The tomato-based sauce was tangy with vinegar, adding to its robustness. Chunks of lamb and potato could be easily cut with a fork.
Chicken muglai ($12.95) was as creamy as the ubiquitous “butter chicken,” chicken makhani, but its base note was ginger instead of tomato, its spice bouquet more complex. This curry had crunch, from chopped cashews hidden in its folds, along with golden raisins. (There also is an extensive vegetarian menu, and tofu specialties; I just didn’t order any.)
An array of flatbreads satisfied in distinctive ways. The bubbly, faintly charred garlic naan ($2.95) was studded with minced garlic, its bite softened by the fierce heat of the tandoor. A coconut naan ($3.25) hid a layer of sweetened shredded coconut that foreshadowed dessert. Onion kulcha ($3.25) was flakier, stuffed with fresh sliced onions. Paratha ($2.95), a griddled whole-wheat bread, was chewier, with a touch of butter.
Desserts (all $3.50) brought a creamy, barely sweet kheer, or rice pudding, topped with crushed pistachios and golden raisins; warm gulab jamun, fluffy fried cheese balls in syrup; and gajar ka halwa, a buttery, cakelike carrot fudge. There also was rasmalai, a stiff puck of cardamom-scented cheese in a bowl of sauce that reminded me of melted ice cream.
Led by that palak and seekh kabab, it was the most satisfying Indian meal I’ve had in ages. There’s plenty of decent Indian restaurants in Western New York, but New Jewel of India is a gem.
New Jewel of India - 8
Robust, complex flavors under new owners helps Hertel restaurant top Indian list.
WHERE: 1264 Hertel Ave. (877-1264, jewelofindiabuffalony.com)
HOURS: 4:30 to 9:30 p.m. Monday; 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 4:30 to 9:30 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday.
PRICE RANGE: Appetizers, $2.95-$9.95; entrees, $10.95-$17.95.
PARKING: Big lot.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes.