Shalimar, 616 South Forest, Tempe, 967-8399. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., seven days a week.

It's great to live in a university town. You have access to the wisdom of great minds. The arts flourish. And the presence of thousands of co-eds gives a meaning to existence that Philosophy 101 can't compete with. Vibrant and pulsating, a university setting can keep you from going stale: Even though you grow older, the students never do. They're perpetually full of life, full of hope and short of cash. That's why cheap restaurants tend to thrive in that environment. Tempe certainly has its share of inexpensive, run-of-the-Mill Avenue burger bistros, pizza parlors and sandwich shops. But it has suddenly sprouted some first-rate ethnic joints, serving tasty Third World fare at prices that should relegate the phrase "starving student" to the dustbin of history. Down the street from the Tempe mosque, Shalimar is a new Indian restaurant run by a genial Pakistani Muslim. A Sikh chef mans the kitchen.

It's got none of the grungy, utilitarian student look that often afflicts this kind of establishment. A natty gray, navy and pink color scheme, linen napkins and comfortable, curved-back chairs make a favorable first impression. So do the mirrors etched with floral designs and the homey white curtains. The Muslim-Sikh partnership reverses standard Hindu restaurant operating procedures. At Shalimar, religion proscribes alcohol, but permits beef. Still, I would never order beef at an Indian restaurant, for the same reason I'd avoid the low-cholesterol chicken platter at a steak house: I just can't imagine that the kitchen really has its heart in it. The mixed-appetizer plate provides a quick heap of decent munchies to keep hungry scholars from prematurely expiring. None of the items is likely to win acclaim from the American Heart Association. Samosas are deep-fried turnovers stuffed with mixed vegetables. Chicken, eggplant and cauliflower pakora are all battered and deep-fried. If "deep-fried" goes against your religious beliefs, the mulligatawny soup is a good alternative. This British-inspired broth features lots of lentils and generous chunks of chicken. Shalimar begins to shine when it brings out the main dishes. Mixed tandoor is the best way to sample the beauties of the tandoor, a fiery hot clay oven that cooks food quickly while sealing in the juices. The platter here contains a quarter chicken, moist lamb hunks, boneless chicken breast, two shrimp, marinated ground lamb and a fistful of sizzling onions. At $10.95, it's the most expensive item on the menu, but you won't get shortchanged. Grohan shrimp is a specialty you won't find in too many Indian restaurants. A half-dozen shrimp come simmered in a decadent coconut-cream sauce, heavily laden with nuts and spices. This dish is rich, redolent with lush, exotic flavors. Rogan josh is an Indian staple, tender lamb smoothly cooked in butter and spices. As a test, we asked the kitchen to turn on the heat, and the pepper-packed portion we received indicated that the chef takes customer requests seriously. Good as they were, these entrees didn't prepare me for Shalimar's vegetarian offerings. Vegetarian plates generally conjure up nasty images of bland, sprout-filled fare, groaning with seeds, twigs and berries. But the meatless dishes here could convert the most stubborn carnivore. Our host raved about his chef's virtuosity with saag paneer. "Only two chefs in America can do it," he claimed. (According to him, the other is in Houston.) I'm a believer. The version here is irresistible, freshly chopped spinach cooked in cream with bits of Indian cheese. I don't know what the flavor secret is, but it should be written down and stored in a safe place, so future generations can enjoy it. Bengan bhartha emits the delightful aroma of roasted eggplant, purāed with onions and peas, with a spice rack full of seasonings. And matar kofta, vegetarian kebabs made from minced vegetables, swims in a velvety cream sauce, thickened with cashews. Only vegetable biryani failed to meet Shalimar's high standards. No problem with the generous helping, the vegetable medley or the delightful sprinkling of cashews and raisins. But the overcooked basmati rice dried everything out. Shalimar does a bang-up job on breads, one of the glories of Indian cooking. Paratha, multilayered bread made from whole wheat flour, and kulcha, leavened bread stuffed with onions and spices, come hot and steaming, a perfect accompaniment to the main dishes. Sweets are never the highlight of Indian meals. But the astonishingly luscious ras malai may stimulate revisionist thinking on this subject. It's kind of an Indian cottage cheese, soaked in divine, nut-studded cream, fragrant with cardamom. Dessert lovers who can take comfort in John Maynard Keynes' famous observation--In the long run, we're all dead"--will have the easiest time overlooking this treat's nutritional deficiencies. You don't have to own a Phi Beta Kappa key to discern that Shalimar offers a tempting combination of value and taste. Even ASU students should have no trouble figuring it out. Cafe Istanbul, 903 South Rural, Tempe, 731-9499. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., Saturday, noon to 2:30 p.m.; Dinner, Monday through Saturday, 5 to 10 p.m.

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