Next to one of those risky mid-block crosswalks on the Ave, across from Neelam's fabulous Indian restaurant, a new contender on the Indian buffet scene has blossomed. The Spice Rack, Lakhvinder Mroke's latest enterprise (he started Tandoor just a few blocks north), blatantly transgresses the unspoken rule of buffet mediocrity.

Seeing as I am a big white American, my affair with the buffet began in childhood, at the Royal Fork. While my father focused rather narrowly on the roast-beef carver in his puffy white hat, occasionally plunging into whipped potatoes with congealed, chewy gravy, my main purpose at the buffet was to make up for all the hours the soft-serve ice-cream machine and I had spent apart. Pulling the lever down to release the gentle flow, tilting and finessing my tiny cup to catch the thick stream at the perfect angle, I experienced a kind of erotic transcendence. I could swirl a technically perfect soft-serve mountain just as well as any 16-year-old Dairy Queen employee. And I was self-taught.

It was the damp, lean years of university education that prompted my rediscovery of the buffet. Indian restaurants were unique in that they offered not only spice and flavor, but also vegetable dishes. After a long week of hitting the books and a longer weekend blowing off steam into a plastic keg cup, all on an essentially empty stomach, a $4.99, three-hour, pre-hibernation-esque eating extravaganza felt so good, on so many levels. In those years of perpetually soggy shoes, the Snackery was born. Unfortunately, this bold and sassy name did not translate so well, and the proprietors rechristened my most esteemed Indian restaurant Neelam's. Up until recently, Neelam's was the pinnacle of good food and truly nice people.

While the folks at Neelam's are unquestionably gracious, serving up consistent favorites, the snappily named Spice Rack (there are four nearly empty spice racks mounted at various spots around the dining room) is a hot contender. For $5.99, the 11 am-2 pm, seven-days-a-week buffet is a steal, even if you are small of stomach. What I found most remarkable about the Rack's extensive buffet is the high quality and freshness of the items served. The pakoras, for instance, are a troublesome chafing-dish item. Deep-fried vegetable patties are delicious fresh out of the hopper, but even 10 minutes on a steam table renders them inedible. At the Spice Rack, the more delicate items, such as tandoori chicken, pakoras, and naan, are made in small batches and constantly replenished, thereby avoiding languishing for hours under heat lamps. The different vegetable dishes taste and look distinct from each other, as do the meat curries (including costly and oh-so-succulent lamb masala, as well as the occasional goat!). Two to three chutneys are available, at no additional charge (as it should be!), as well as pickled limes.

For the sake of research, I dabbled a bit in the Mediterranean section of the non-buffet menu one evening, and found the freshly made dolmas (stuffed grape leaves, $4.99) shockingly delicious. I felt embarrassed when I read the Pasta-E-Racks menu section, describing offerings such as Tandoori Alfredo served with garlic naan fingers. When Mroke disappeared into the kitchen to make special potato naan with less salt and onions for my two toddler associates, I understood that his desire to cater to individual tastes sprang from genuine hospitality. Later, he carried my take-out order halfway up the block to my car, while I guided the wily, prancy Team Toddler into car seats.

As I judge any man, I was first and foremost impressed with Mroke's culinary skills. I must admit that I was also charmed by his utter delight in the presence of small kids at his restaurant, as well as his special and lavish attentions on them. I don't know how he can sustain it, but the Spice Rack is a nice place to while away a Sunday afternoon, getting high on chai, going back for one more bite of spicy jalfrazie and maybe just a teeny dollop of rich vegetable korma.

Spice Rack

4728 University Way NE, 525-8113. Daily 11 am-10 pm. $

Price Scale (per entrée)

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