But then there's the Indian buffet.
Imagine the aromas of garam masala, coriander and cumin. Picture the silky sauces, tender cubes of lamb and chicken, pungent spices, the baskets of garlicky naan. Suddenly, the whole eat-as-much-as-you-want thing takes on a different allure.
Now, take it one step further and think about the groaning tables at Passage to India. Ah, buffet Nirvana.
Passage to India has been a Mountain View mainstay of Indian cuisine since 1992, when owner Sushma Taneja took over the then-two-year-old establishment. It was still in its smaller location farther down El Camino Real (that site now services as Passage to India's bakery and vegetarian snack shop). In 2001, Taneja moved into the current space, a one-time Bob's Big Boy, then amped up the menu to include both northern and southern Indian dishes, and turned Passage to India into a local destination for sub-continental cuisine.
We stopped by recently for a lunch and dinner. Both were buffets.
Passage to India has always charged a few bucks more for its buffet than much of the competition ($11.95 for weekday lunch; $14.95 for weekend brunch; and $15.95 for weekend dinner), but there are still few Indian feasts in the area that compare, namely with regard to the diversity of the offerings and the availability of some unusual dishes. The copious a la carte menu offers entrees ranging from $17.95 for the tandoori mixed grill to $9.95 for many of the vegetarian offerings.
The buffet showcases many of the everyday dishes you'd expect to find at any Indian establishment — tikka masala, tandoori chicken, vindaloos, bengan bertha — alongside some unusual and more sophisticated offerings: a flaky, coconut milk-infused fish curry, smoky petite roasted eggplants, and a chaat station offering India's version of tapas. (Chaat means "tastes" in Hindi.)
On the far reaches of the "unusual" scale is the smattering of "desi Chinese" dishes. The uninitiated may find themselves scratching their heads over Chinese food as it is prepared in India. The lackluster "chop suez" and fried rice admittedly had me looking a bit quizzical, so I left that end of the table to the Indian expats hungry for a Chinese-inspired taste of home.
An entire wing of the buffet is reserved for vegetarian dishes, an organizational touch appreciated by a meat-eschewing member of our group. Here we loaded up on masala dosas, a South Indian pancake made from rice and lentils, then stuffed with curried potatoes, diced onions and spices. They remained soft even as they sat on the buffet table. The red tofu curry tasted of Thailand, with heavy rations of coconut milk and cilantro.
Malai kofta is a stew of potato and cheese dumplings bathed in a rich, garlicky-gingery gravy. I sopped up the savory sauce with my garlic naan, but found myself avoiding the chewy dumplings.
We sampled far too many dishes to comment on each, but highlights included the fork-tender tandoori chicken, flavorful bhindi okra, the creamy mushroom saag, karahi chicken with its tomato-masala-yogurt sauce, and the all-around favorite: coconut fish curry, prepared firm and flaky with a creamy sauce evocative of the South Pacific. The mini "chicken rolls" (something of an Indian burrito with curried chicken inside) and the Indian pizza slices were a novelty, but unmemorable.
Certain dishes lean toward the spicy side, but overall most of the menu should be accessible to anyone of at least average heat tolerance.
A pani puri station is not something you usually find at your basic Indian buffet. I enlisted the help of a waiter in order to make sure I properly prepared this type of chaat, a popular street food in India. The "pani" are bite-sized puffed pastries you stuff with your own concoction (the "puri") of curried potatoes, onions, cilantro, and other spices, along with some healthy spoonfuls of mint chutney, tamarind or other sauces. You pop the puff in your mouth and bite down, releasing an explosion of taste from the spicy-liquid center.
We enjoyed a pleasant (and generous) glass of Ferrari-Carano Chardonnay ($7.50), but were disappointed by the supposed go-to drink, the mango lassi, a blend of liquid yogurt and mango pulp. While no mango lassi will ever live up to the one I had on a 108-degree day in Singapore's Little India, I found Passage to India's version surprisingly sweet and syrupy. Happily, the mango soft-serve ice cream went a long way toward cleansing the spice and salt from our palates.
Dessert at most Indian buffets is limited to gulab jamun, the fried dough balls served with a syrup sweet enough to make your teeth hurt. Passage to India offers a fairly typical version of gulab jamun along with the mango ice cream and a small selection of pastries, or "mithai," from the restaurant's bakery.
Service was efficient, if a touch aloof. On one visit, we didn't receive any naan until we had finished our first plate of food.
Passage to India looks pleasant enough with its turmeric-yellow and burgundy color scheme, but the decor could be so much more. A sumptuous buffet deserves sumptuous surroundings, not drab curtains, a dated vibe, and restrooms that are frankly more suited to a dive bar. In any case, my post-review telephone conversation with Taneja revealed that renovation plans are in the works.
Apparently, more good things are in store at Passage to India.
Passage to India
1991 W. El Camino Real, Mountain View