Rocky's, an Indian restaurant in a Millersport Highway strip mall north of the University at Buffalo's Amherst Campus, serves a lunch buffet that regulars described to me without much enthusiasm. But you can't always judge an Indian restaurant from its buffet. Those all-you-can-eat setups need a steady crowd to glimpse its potential amid the frequently refilled serving dishes, and the cooks tend to tone down the spices.
So we stopped by Rocky's for dinner recently, and found enough bright spots on the menu to earn it a spot on our list of Indian regulars.
It's a family place, with the father in the kitchen and adult children serving customers in a tidy little room that can get faintly smoky, and leave your clothing with leftover scents. We scanned the menu at a table covered in a maroon tablecloth with paper napkins.
We asked for vegetable samosas ($2.50) and mixed vegetable pakoras ($4.95). Another appetizer choice was chaat papri ($6.95), a mixture of potato cubes, spices, chickpeas, yogurt and tamarind sauces.
Drawn toward dishes that appeared at least slightly unusual on the menu, we chose sarson ka saag ($10.95), described as ground mustard leaves and spinach with garlic and onions, and chicken shiesh kabab ($13.95), a seasoned ground chicken mixture formed around skewers and roasted in the tandoor oven.
For our cheese choice, Cat picked paneer makhni ($11.95), homemade cheese cubes in a creamy tomato sauce. Tandoori shrimp ($14.95) was our other entree, and we requested two breads, onion kulcha ($2.95) and standard naan ($2.25).
The first dish, samosas, offered spiced potato filling inside flaky pastry crusts with a distinct crispiness that's often absent, prompting Cat to call it "one of the best I've been served." They arrived with a spicy green dipping sauce with fresh chile and cilantro – notably fiery – and a dark, sweet and tangy tamarind sauce.
The pakoras, vegetable fritters in a chickpea batter, were crispy though tender inside and cooked delicately enough that you could taste the spinach.
The chaat papri was a delicious riot of flavors and textures, with crunchy fried noodles, rich, creamy yogurt, tangy tamarind sauce, hearty chickpeas and smooth potato cubes dressed in spices and chopped cilantro. At $7 it was a bit dear, but too much fun to pass up.
Our cheese course reminded me of the standard "butter chicken," built on toasted tomato paste fruitiness and cream. We enjoyed cubes of mild cheese in the smooth orange sauce, which I found too sweet, like the base for an awesome new flavor of ice cream. Everyone else disagreed.
The chicken kababs were delivered on a sizzling platter of saucy onions, bell peppers and lemon wedges. We got four five-inch pieces of spiced ground meat, and would have eaten more, as it was moist, well-seasoned and satisfying.
Another sizzling platter bore our tandoori shrimp, a half-dozen jumbo crustaceans amid a welter of more onions, bell peppers and lemon wedges. The shrimp were prepared ably, tender and while not particularly browned, were not overcooked either.
The sarson ka saag looked like Indian classic spinach and cheese, palak paneer. The first forkful announced the distinction: this was greens with guts.
The creamy concoction packed a powerful, sharper flavor that reminded me of mature rutabaga or turnip greens. Queried, our server said it contained no turnips, but spinach, broccoli and leaf mustard, which reminded me of the pungency that traveled up my nostrils like wasabi.
The breads were fresh and aromatic, made to order as usual. Service was attentive – we swiftly had a dropped spoon replaced – though we did wonder why our entrees took a while in a mostly empty restaurant.
If you haven't been impressed by Rocky's lunch buffet, try dinner. You might be pleasantly surprised.
Rocky's Indian Restaurant
Seven out of 10 plates
If you've only tried the lunch buffet, ?the dinner menu is also worth exploring.
WHERE: 2351 Millersport Highway, ?Amherst (204-8324)
HOURS: 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and ?5 to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Closed Sunday and Monday.
PRICE RANGE: Appetizers and breads, $1.50-$10.95; ?entrees, $9.95-$15.95.
PARKING: In the lot.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes.