I've ragged on buffets in the past, and I probably will again in the future. No steam-tray food can come close to meals served piping hot and fresh from a restaurant kitchen. Dishes end up dried or damp or overcooked, or all of the above. It's a travesty of good cuisine.
That said, there is one exception: Indian cuisine is almost uniquely suited to the rigors and hardship of the buffet line. Standard Indian restaurant fare consists essentially of stews — meat, veg or bean suspended in a heavily seasoned and rich sauce — or dry-roasts and sautés. Those kinds of dishes are made for a steam tray, the moisture of the stews serving as a protective layer and the dryness of the roasts and sautés making the unceasing heat less of a burden.
Lunchtime is prime time for Indian buffet lines. Convenience and speed always win the daytime business dollar, so many joints — especially places like Shalimar, on the outskirts of downtown, and Taj, in the heart of the USF corridor — lay out a spread, with varying success.
By 1 p.m., Shalimar is largely empty. That might explain why much of their food is huddled into the corners of big metal trays like ugly puppies at the pound. Only the dregs are left, and it tastes like it. That's a big serious buffet faux pas.
Shalimar also cuts the edges off their buffet dishes, sacrificing the intense, aromatic spices that make Indian food such a joy, perhaps to reach out to people with timid palates. Saag aloo (spinach and potatoes) tastes like unseasoned creamed spinach that could just as easily have come from a bad American steakhouse, while butter chicken — an already Westernized classic — lacks anything but the richness of clarified butter.
At least salt, but certainly not spice, reappears in the ground lamb and peas of keema matar and acceptable veggie pakora (fritters). Tandoor chicken may be the best thing on the line; it doesn't taste Indian, but at least it tastes like chicken.
On a side table are a few small salads and a tray of mixed pickles — a standard Indian condiment. The small hunks of zucchini and squash are so blazingly hot and intensely flavored with vinegar and spice that a single bite is enough to remind you what you're missing on the rest of the line. After that, you'll just be filling your plate to fill a void.
It's a shame, really, because Shalimar is better at night. The dal (lentil soup) has some serious punch to it; korma is velvety rich from ground cashews; and the chana masala (chick peas and potatoes) is infused with cardamom and cumin. Standard stuff, but at least it tastes like it actually comes from an Indian restaurant.
If anything, Taj excels and fails in the exact opposite way. At night, their food suffers. Vindaloo is soupy, the usually powerful punch of vinegar and chili diluted in a sea of oily sauce, while watery korma doesn't display any nutty richness. Pakora are fried balls of salt, and beloved naan comes across as a doughy mess.
The buffet, though, makes up for it. Taj's spinach is subtle, but still redolent with cardamom, as is the rich and creamy dal; ginger gives a punch to big hunks of cauliflower and potatoes in the aloo gobi; and those salty pakora are re-invigorated in a soupy sauce of yogurt and mild curry.
Taj's Tandoori chicken may be the best I've had of the style — on a buffet line or not. Pieces are big, which seems to protect them from the dry texture common to this ubiquitous Indian meat preparation. Subtle but present coriander and cumin infuse every moist bite of the bright red meat. Gosh, I never expected to want seconds of steam-tray Tandoor.
Taj presents a wide variety of pickles and salads that range from passable cole slaw to brilliant slices of potato cured in powerful vinegar and hot chili. Since most of the dishes on the buffet line manage intense aromatics and hefty spice without offending (too much) the blander palates in the crowd, Taj's hot pickles accent the rest of the food without overpowering. As they should.
A few things don't work, like generic beef and chicken curry, where the meat is somehow intensely dry even when surrounded by sauce. Still in all, it's a competent buffet. If only Taj could translate some of that onto their menu.
Maybe Shalimar and Taj can get together and form a single restaurant that's successful in both steam-tray wrangling and nightly takeout.