When I go out to eat, I usually choose something spicy or exotic, and I usually take forever deciding what I want. It's hard to pick one dish.
For indecisive diners like me, a buffet is a great option. And an Indian food buffet appeals to my love of spicy ethnic eats.
I've enjoyed meals at west Omaha's Dhaba Indian Cuisine in the past, and on two recent visits, I found that, despite a few fumbles, Dhaba still offers tasty and affordable buffet lunches and a varied selection of dinner entrees that showcase the diversity of Indian regional cuisine.
Dhaba is in a former Starbucks near 120th and Blondo Streets, and it first opened in September 2009. A dispute between majority owner Aravind Gottiparthy and his business partner led to the restaurant's closing in May 2011.
Gottiparthy reopened four months later with new chefs. Dhaba's menu remained unchanged, although new items, including Indian street-food snacks called chaat, will be added soon.
Comfortable and contemporary, the restaurant features floor-to-ceiling windows, high ceilings, neutral colors and standard laminate tables. Thatch-covered wooden booths along a wall offer an inviting spot to eat, chat and unwind. Hammered-copper water cups and serving dishes add a stylish accent.
I met a friend for a late Saturday lunch. Though we arrived toward the end of buffet service, we found it hot, fresh and, for the most part, well-stocked. With a selection that changes daily, the buffet includes a variety of meat and vegetarian dishes, soups, appetizers, chutneys, rice, salads and desserts.
At $11.99 ($9.99 during the week), it offers a lot for the money. The buffet is a row of linen-covered tables with more than a dozen chafing dishes and large serving vessels. The flurry of fragrant spices and vivid colors (red, green, yellow, orange) had me giddy from the get-go.
I wanted to sample all the various types of chutney. A ladle of this and a scoop of that, and I was ready to dig in.
A plate of fresh naan (Indian flatbread baked in a clay tandoor oven) was waiting at our table. The aromatic curries and spice-laced dishes we selected ranged from sauteed and stewed to tandoor-baked and fried.
While I would have liked some saag (a dish with such leafy greens as spinach or mustard greens), the buffet had plenty of highlights: dal makhani (a rich and hearty lentil dish), okra masala (sauteed okra with onions, tomatoes and spices), chicken biryani (a classic Indian rice dish perfumed with spices), navratan korma (assorted vegetables in a mild, creamy sauce), and one of my favorite Indian dishes, chicken tikka masala.
Hearty and comforting, Dhaba's chicken tikka masala features bite-size pieces of tandoor-cooked boneless chicken marinated in spices and yogurt, and served in a rich, slightly thick orange-hued gravy of pureed tomato, cream and other ingredients.
Dhaba's version of this savory, slightly sweet dish was good but not mind-blowing. I wanted a smokier flavor from the chicken and a thicker, creamier sauce. The chicken pieces in the chicken tikka masala linger in the sauce for a lot longer during the lunch buffet than when you order it for dinner, which might explain the lack of smokiness. And I've had thicker sauce, with more cream, at other restaurants, so that's what I expected.
My dining partner's plate included bone-in tandoori chicken and goat curry. He loved the tandoori chicken: bright red, succulent and rich with flavor.
Gottiparthy later told me the bone-in chicken is marinated overnight in yogurt with a blend of spices, including cloves, coriander, garlic, ginger, black pepper, mustard oil and red chili pepper.
Having never eaten goat, my friend wasn't sure what to expect, but he was hooked after the first taste.
Cooked for more than six hours to a rich lusciousness, the curry features bone-in pieces of goat in a sauce made with tomato, onion and garam masala (a blend of ground spices that can include black and white peppercorns, cloves, mace, cumin, cardamom, nutmeg, star anise and coriander). Moist and tender, the goat reminded him of lamb and wasn't gamey at all.
A weeknight dinner visit was more hit-and-miss.
The meal started with complimentary papadum — a super-thin, crispy cracker made with lentil flour and spices. It was a nice way to kick-start our appetites. But when our server brought out our entrees, he whisked away our half-eaten papadum before we could ask him not to. Bummer.
I had the bagara baingan — an eggplant curry from southern India, featuring small, whole Indian eggplant in a thick, rich, delicious sauce.
Made with ground peanuts, sesame seeds, tomato, tamarind, onion, garlic, chili pepper, cumin and other spices, the sauce had a rich, nutty flavor, a slight heat from the chili, and a hint of sour from the tamarind.
I thought the eggplant was a little unwieldy to eat. The somewhat tough, fibrous peel kept separating from the soft flesh when I cut into it with my fork. It was also a bit too oily for my taste.
My dining partner ordered the Madras chicken curry. He liked the sauce, but he thought the chicken was dry and tough.
The dish consists of chicken cubes seasoned with ginger, garlic, turmeric, red chili powder and other spices. The chicken is cooked in oil before being added to a sauce made from finely chopped tomatoes, curry leaves and spices, including cumin and mustard seeds.
A refreshing, creamy mango lassi, made on site with fruit pulp, milk, almond powder, sugar and yogurt, was the highlight of my friend's meal.
The biggest disappointment was the steamed basmati rice, which was mushy and clumpy. At lunch, though, the rice was spot on, fluffy and separated.
"Five times out of 100 times, I see the rice overcooked or undercooked," Gottiparthy said.
He said the quality of the rice has been a problem, and they've quit using rice from one company that kept turning out sticky.
For an appetizer, we shared vegetable samosas (also offered with lamb). An order of two comes with mint chutney sauce.
Vibrant green, fresh and pleasingly tangy, the chutney was tasty, and I used it throughout the meal as a dip for pieces of roti — a flatbread made from wheat flour.
The puffy, pyramid-like samosas were pastry shells stuffed with a savory filling of spiced potatoes and peas, then deep fried. Samosas vary wildly from restaurant to restaurant. Some are flaky and tender, some are plumper, more crisp, doughier. I thought the samosa filling was fine, but the exterior was tough and chewy, especially around the edges and corners.
Gottiparthy said the samosas are cooked early in the day and then rewarmed in the microwave when they're ordered; this might account for the tough exterior.
Prices here are a couple of dollars higher than at some other Indian places in town, but not excessive. Before tip, dinner (including two appetizers, an order of bread, two entrees and two drinks) ran about $45. Lunch for two was about half that.
With a few exceptions, Dhaba delights with its varied buffet lunches and homestyle dinner entrees — a nice option when you're craving a spicy, exotic change of pace from the everyday.