India Grill

1761 Rockville Pike

Rockville

468-2222

Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily.

Prices: Most dinner entrees $5 to $7.

Credit cards: Approval pending.

We visited India Grill when it had been open just a few weeks, and its brand-new newness was apparent -- no liquor license or credit cards yet, erratic service, a few dishes unavailable because of a short-staffed kitchen. Even so, we were impressed with the quality of the food, the rock-bottom prices (there's an all-you-can-eat buffet for $4.99 at lunch and $7.99 at dinner) and the breadth of the menu -- meats grilled in an authentic tandoor oven, a broad array of curries and biryani dishes, nine varieties of bread, even South Indian dosas, served from 2 to 7 p.m.

This is a small place with minimal decor, but it's clean and comfortable, and the proprietors use real china and cutlery, not plastic ware.

Appetizers and soups are not a strong point here. We found both the fried appetizers -- samosas and pakoras -- somewhat flat-tasting, albeit not greasy. Considering the complex, palate-teasing quality of most Indian soups, India Grill's lentil soup was surprisingly dull. (Shami-kebab, the grilled lamb appetizer, was not available when we visited.)

The tandoor grill notwithstanding, the shining lights at India Grill are the sauced dishes, with marvelous combinations of spices that capture the complexity of Indian cooking at its best. You won't find better Indian sauces even at much fancier restaurants, and you probably won't go wrong with any sauced dish on the menu. One highlight is the rich, velvety chicken shahi korma, braised in cream, yogurt and crushed nuts. For something less rich, try the chicken tikka masala, tandoor-grilled chicken morsels in a delightful sauce with chunky tomato and onion. The vegetarian dishes are lovely too. The saag paneer, spinach long-simmered with home-made cheese, is the best we've had in a long time, and the malai kofta, vegetable dumplings in a slightly tart cream sauce, are delightful.

Among the best of the tandoor-grilled dishes is the beautifully flavored ginger kebab, cubes of remarkably succulent chicken fillet marinated in ginger, crushed nuts and lime juice before grilling. Similarly filleted and grilled, but less intensely flavored, is the chicken tikka. India Grill's tandoori chicken, made with whole, bone-in pieces, tends to be a bit dry, and we've had several pieces singed around the edges. The seekh-kebab, cylinders of rough-ground meat grilled in the tandoor, have been quite dry.

The biryani dishes -- subtly spiced pilafs of basmati rice with meat, nuts, raisins and saffron -- are very good here, if a little unusual in texture. In most biryanis, the rice is separate-grained and fluffy, but here it's a bit more moist -- so much so that the mixture can be molded into a symmetrical mound on the plate.

Don't overlook the excellent breads at India Grill. The deep-fried poori is a puffy gem, and the plain, tandoor-grilled naan is very good too. But the spiced breads are even better: one sprinkled with fresh chopped garlic, another with fresh mint, another stuffed with onions, another filled with spiced minced lamb.

Only one dessert was available when we visited, an outstanding rendition of gulab jamun, a syrup-soaked pastry that was remarkably light and delicate.