The Smell of Curry In the Afternoon
The only one happier than you after your lunchtime trip to India Cuisine will be your dry-cleaner
Ah, the smell of Indian food. It sticks to your hair and lingers on every fiber of your clothing like a benevolent but persistent poltergeist. To me, it’s as good as cologne, a memento of a meal well-eaten. You won’t soon forget that you ate at an Indian restaurant—and neither will anyone within whiffing distance of you back at the office.
To experience the whole gamut of aromas in one sitting, there’s nothing better than a buffet. Plus, there are other advantages. The most obvious? Almost an entire menu’s worth of entrées is laid out for the taking. Why limit yourself to ordering just one, two, or even three items when you can taste a dozen for one fixed price? And there’s also the fact that Indian food—with its reliance on gravies—lends itself perfectly to the low simmer of a buffet-line chafing tray. It rounds out the flavors and, more important, sends the aromas airborne like a potpourri pot.
The lunch buffet at the 9-month-old India Cuisine in Santa Ana is just the kind your dry-cleaner would love for you to go to. The $8.95 price is just right, the food is fresh, and the heady scent attaches itself to you like a magnet. A hot basket of naan comes with your meal—either plain or blasted with herbs and brushed with garlic ghee. Stretched to an even thickness, the flatbread is crisply blistered in parts, chewy in others, and perfect for sopping.
You need every scrap of it for what you scoop up at the buffet. The best offering is the chicken tikka masala. The dish is to Indian food what orange chicken is to Chinese—everyone loves it. India Cuisine’s version is rich and creamy, hitting all the notes like an organist with nimble fingers. The chicken chunks are all white meat, every piece moist; but it’s the orange-hued gravy that you’ll pour over everything. The fluffy rice—which is also lightly spiced—is well-suited to being smothered by the sauce. Mix it up, rake it into your mouth, and repeat.
The other northern India specialties are just as good. No surprise, lamb gets a variety of treatments here. As tandoori, chunks are rimmed in red food coloring, making them dead ringers for Chinese barbecued pork. In the lamb curry, the meat is still attached to bone, absorbing the flavor of its sauce and taking on an osso bucco-like tenderness.
Saag paneer is creamed spinach with an advanced degree in deliciousness—a dark, creamy glop of green full of complexity and cooked down almost to soup. It’s the color complement to the tandoori chicken, which has an arresting cherry-red hue where it’s not beautifully burnished with char.
After your plate is full of the hot entrées, you’ll still have to consider the chilled tray of condiments. Here you can take in the sweet-and-sour zip of the tamarind sauce or, better yet, the zap of the green mint chutney. The latter cuts like razor wire when dabbed onto the pakoras (both the chicken and the veggie) and the substantial, potato-stuffed samosas. If you’re truly a masochist, use the lime pickle and the chili paste, which is riddled with explosive seeds. Once you’re done punishing yourself, cool off with raita or freshly cut cucumbers.
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Finish with warm, honey-syrup-steeped gulab jamun, bite-sized bread-pudding balls that look like doughnut holes and taste like powdered milk. For something cold, optw for the kheer, a chilled rice pudding reminiscent of chunky, cinnamon-y Mexican horchata.
If you insist on having dinner at India Cuisine, the buffet won’t be there, but you will have the place to yourself. Though it’s within spitting distance of South Coast Plaza, India Cuisine is located in a hidden corner in an area that’s always deserted after dark. The food—cooked by none other than the chef from the now-defunct Niki’s—remains the same.
During the dinner service, the tandoori meats are presented on a sizzling-hot plate, rice will be served individually in ornate metal vessels, and as a starter to your meal, complimentary papadum is brought out. Its feathery crispness is the missing link between a lavash cracker and a Pringles potato chip. And don’t worry: Even without the gurgling buffet vats, you’ll still leave smelling like curry.
India Cuisine at 3910 S. Bristol St., Ste. 110A, Santa Ana, (714) 850-9945; www.indiacuisinerestaurant.com. Open daily, 11 a.m.-3 p.m. & 5-10 p.m. Lunch buffet, $8.95 per person; dinner for two, $20-$32, food only. Beer and wine.