Buffets are usually a no-go zone. Is anyone out there really craving food that's been left out to die beneath heat lamps or above Sterno flames? Breakfast buffets, Chinese buffets, pizza buffets, steak buffets—for the most part, you can simply ignore them.
But I will most definitely make an exception when it comes to Indian buffets. Why? Much of the food that's made its way from the Indian subcontinent to America is based on developing thick, rich sauces that coat the meats and vegetables. The window in which those sauces are at their peak is wider than in quick-cooked foods that must be served ASAP, which means they can handle the extra simmering on the buffet.
Even then, there are limits. Several months ago, I wandered into Sarasota's Gateway to India, which serves a $9.99 lunchtime buffet on Hillview Street every day of the week, and came away disappointed. The vegetarian items were still excellent, particularly an okra masala, but the chicken was tough and dry, overcooked. But perhaps it was just a bad day? I roll up on a Friday to give it another shot, alongside Sarasota Magazine korma correspondents Hannah, Megan and Regina.
It's dark and warm inside—busy, too. The hospital's right across the street, so it's no surprise to see a variety of scrub hues and a number of professional tête-à-têtes. The table behind is chatting about the government regulations that surround CBD, aka cannabidiol. Framed stamp collections hang on the wall beside us. In the back, next to a sign imploring us to "PLEASE USE CLEAN PLATES," we find the buffet, set up in a "U" shape.
Most of the dishes on display today will be familiar to anyone with an interest in Indian cuisine. Onion pakoras, basmati rice, tandoori chicken, vegetable korma, chicken tikka masala, a vegetable saag and other main items line the runway. An onion chutney, raita and "hot sauce" sit on the side. Naan is delivered in a small basket to the table.
Your fav will depend on your inclination. The primo selection for me is that vegetarian saag. Super smooth, with an impressive spinach heft, the sauce is strewn with big hunks of potato, green peas, chickpeas and more. The bright, fresh pomegranate-colored chutney acts as a counterpoint to the subterranean flavors in the saag itself. A thin dribble of raita lightens and lifts all of the above. The vegetarian korma is another nice achievement—ultra-creamy, colored a pale lemon-brown, with a soft, sweet flavor.
The chicken jalfrezi is the best meat on offer, with a bewildering blend of spices and a gentle nudge of heat. The tandoori chicken, meanwhile, has dried out too much, and the tikka masala is a bit too one-dimensionally sweet. The naan is excellent, bubbly and burnt in spots, and perfect for sopping up sauce. "Make em' say uhh!" Megan sings softly. "Na naan na naan."
The rice, meanwhile, is fluffy, with distinct grains. The pakoras, little fried nubs, add a little crunch to the softer textures all around. For dessert, there's just a mostly forgettable cardamom-scented sweet rice pudding.
Overall: way better than I remembered from my trip months ago, if still a bit uneven. That's the other great thing about buffets, though. If you don't enjoy something, just find something else. The other advantage: You won't go hungry. I leave the restaurant waddling, with no need to eat till the next lunar cycle. Like I said, most buffets are lame-o. When you do go, go all out.
Gateway to India is located at 1960 Hillview St., Sarasota, and is open 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and 5-9 p.m. Sunday and Monday and 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and 5-10 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday. Call (941) 364-4777 or visit gatewaytoindiasrq.com for more info.