Herald Rating* * * 1/2
Address: 73 Mokoia Rd, Birkenhead
Ph: (09) 418 5019
Cuisine: Indian
From the menu: Onion bhaji $6, tandoori prawns $10, lamb jalfrazi $13, chicken sagwala $13, dahl makani $10, sides $2-3, gulab jamun $4
Drinks: Fully licensed and BYOW

We're spoilt for choice with Indian food in Auckland, but it can be difficult to differentiate one dish from the next with all that butter chicken and lamb korma being bandied about. You have to do your homework to find a place that is a standout and they often come in surprising packages.

When I arrived at the Birkenhead establishment that had been recommended by a few friends who live Shore-side, I thought they may have been setting me up. Located in one of those ghastly blocks of shops that always seem to have a Subway nearby, Sagar Indian Restaurant didn't look like a standout.

In fact I nearly sent an emergency text to Mr Handsome (you'll remember him from last week. Yes, things are going well, thanks for asking) with a change of plan. Instead the text just said "dont judge me" as a forewarning of the slightly shabby location.

Seated at a table marooned in the middle of the room, we felt slightly weird, but Kingfisher beer and complimentary papadums soon put us at ease.

For an entree I chose the tandoori prawns to share as last week I'd seen the lovely Peta Mathias cooking these at the Food Show and I felt inspired. We also chose a serving of onion bhaji.

And even though they weren't the best bhaji I've had, these crunchy little morsels dipped in fresh mint chutney made me feel happy because fried food does that to me. The prawns were, like most prawns you get here, flat, watery and tasteless. The whole of NZ has bad prawns! That may be an exaggeration but how come I can fly less than 3.5 hours "across the ditch, mate" and get sweet, firm, fresh prawns at practically any corner dairy? OK, there's another small inflation of the truth, but you get my drift. Moving on.

Our mains were sensational. Avoiding the korma and butter chicken trap, we went for lamb jalfrazi, chicken sagwala and dahl makhni. When asked if we wanted them medium, mild or hot we deferred by saying "you decide for us, we've been to India so we're not afraid". Now this was not entirely honest.

I certainly wasn't afraid - this family run business was rocking with plenty of locals and the food coming out of the kitchen, on trays crowded with little metal dishes, looked great - but only in my dreams have I been to India!

While not condoning telling lies (there, I've admitted it), when our food arrived I was guiltily pleased I had because all dishes were perfectly spiced, with the right amount of heat, but I couldn't tell you whether they qualified as medium, mild or hot. They were just really good.

The lamb was tender and melted into the richly spiced gravy of sliced onions, capsicums and tomato. The heat was up there but the flavours were so well balanced that it wasn't overbearing. The chicken sagwala, a Punjab favourite, was another good choice with its more mildly spiced, thick spinach puree. We both commented that the cut of chicken used (thigh) was a clever choice to ensure that it was moist and able to hold its own with the velvety spinach sauce.

The dahl makhni was a wonderful creamy blend of lentils and beans cooked with shredded fresh ginger and lots of fresh coriander. It was so good I made a mental note to dig out my substantial stash of lentils at home and get cooking.

I had found a kindred spirit in my dining friend: we both admitted that we love all the little accompaniments that go with eating Indian food. It's like a colourful picnic. We ordered the mixed pickle, raita, sweet mango chutney and the naan, which was soft and charred in all the right places. When the mixed pickle remained largely untouched we both admitted that we were trying to show off in ordering it!

I admit to being confused by people claiming to have "a sweet tooth" or "a more savoury palate" - I have both! So when I see gulab jamun on the menu, I will find space. These sweet dumplings, served warm and floating in fragrant rose water syrup were a heavenly finish to a thoroughly charming evening.

Despite its twinkling fairylights, faux pot plants and fringed curtains, Sagar should not be overlooked if you're after some genuine Indian food served with care.