My former boss, a chef, always said, "Presentation is everything!" before slinging a heap of fried rice onto a plate followed by sticky, depressing handfuls of bright red baked pork chunks. He was a troubled man. Whatever he touched, including his marriage and dog, had a faint tinge of sorrow. His employees, knowing this, had a hard time eating his food. It seemed proof that a cook's psyche permeates his or her wares.

The cooks at India Bistro, thankfully not a sorrowful lot, are big into presentation, but in a more studious manner than my former boss. Chutneys, appetizers, and main courses are served on pretty, shiny silver pots and salvers, so the dining room's tables almost recall fairy tales or The Arabian Nights. Peeking back through the kitchen pass-through, you'll see skewers of basted meats hanging from a wire suspended horizontally from the ceiling; in contrast, the calm waitstaff glides among busy tables, neutralizing patrons' cares with ample drinking water and prompt service.

This room is clearly a Ballard favorite. "They are WONDERFUL," a retired woman told me over the lunch buffet ($5.95) one morning at 11:30 a.m. "I eat the korma every week," she continued. "And look at that nice creamy salad dressing!" Strangely, she immediately spilled her plate of salad with its creamy dressing all over the rug. Still, the lady's advice was solid: Anything korma at India Bistro is excellent, savory and complex--for example the lamb korma, which is often included in the lunch buffet (on the dinner menu it's $8.95). This dish strikes a beautiful balance between the mild sweetness of cream and the prickly, interesting heat of Indian spices.

I came back for dinner with a tall, lanky fellow I know. We started with ice-cold, bracing Himalayan Blue brew ($6); the restaurant also features Northwest microbrews and an assortment of white and red wines. We had a fried calamari appetizer ($4.95), served on an adorable silver platter, bright as the moon with copper handles. Too bad the dish wasn't up to par. The squid itself was wonderfully tender, but the batter, scantily tinged with curry, lacked salt, heat, or overall flavor: The result was bland, but to my surprise, my dinner companion actually offered to share the faintly yellow squid pieces with some pale, hungry, baby-toting diners who were waiting for their table! Wisely, they declined.

We turned to chicken vindaloo ($8.50), which was outrageously nice, smothered in searing tomato-based sauce (you request between one and five stars), practically alive with good intentions and small potato chunks bathing in the aromas along with the very tender chicken. Served with saffroned and plain basmati rice that came in little roll-lipped silver pots, it was a pleasure, though the rice was needlessly oily.

We moved on to tandooris, lamb and prawns both, and disappointingly these also were too shiny with oil for our taste. However, alongside the grilled onions, green peppers, and pounded, hollow rolls of spiced lamb, India Bistro serves a delicious creamy tomato sauce, steaming hot and simple, which makes the tandoori dishes worthwhile. Soon we grew quite attached to this sauce and began pouring it over the rice, too, and dabbing it on our spinach naan ($2.50).

Vegetable raita, the cooling yogurt-and-cucumber complement to Indian cuisine, came in a precious little bucket like the ones you see at the seashore, only bright silver. Aloo gobi, or cauliflower ($7.50), was just as fine as the vindaloo, with its large vegetable pieces briefly cooked and crunchy alongside the soft potatoes. Saag paneer ($7.50), or spinach with rich homemade cheese, was perfectly adequate, but not as outstanding as the vindaloo or kormas. India Bistro has its strong points in some of the more popular Indian dishes, but doesn't keep up as well with the less-frequently ordered plates. It's worth exploring for its large menu and tiny silver plates, pots, and buckets.

India Bistro

2301 NW Market, 783-5080. Mon-Sat lunch buffet 11:30 am-2:30 pm, dinner daily 5 pm-9 pm, $.

Price Scale (per entrée)

$ = $10 and under; $$ = $10-$20; $$$ = $20 and up