Monday, September 13, 2010

A Tale of Two Buffets

A few weeks ago, a friend of a friend whom we met at Dim Sum posted some pictures of an Indian restaurant he went to, India Oven in Mesa, and said it was great. The pictures, including some delicious looking garlic naan, sold me. A week or so later I was able to try it. I've been back another time as well.

Recently, the Phoenix New Times reviewed Guru Palace Cuisine of India, another Indian restaurant in Mesa, coincidentally also off of Gilbert Road and only .8 mile away. I tried Guru Palace this weekend with a brave Tara (who has had some bad Indian meals).

India Oven's buffet typically has four or five non-vegetarian dishes, four or five vegetarian dishes, salad fixings, dessert, and some other items whose purpose I'm not sure of. On both my visits, they have had a chicken dish (chicken tikka masala both times), a bone-in goat dish (not tried), a lamb dish (lamb vindaloo my first visit), and tandoor chicken.

The chicken tikka masala is excellent. The chicken had the right texture and the spices were perfect for my palate. I had to restrain myself or I would have eaten way too much. I'm typically not a huge lamb fan, but I decided to try it here. I'm glad I did. I loved the lamb vindaloo as well as the lamb dish on my second visit that I can't recall. Both times the lamb was fork tender and the flavors of the dishes were perfect. I recall having another vindaloo dish years ago that was much spicier, but the spice level here was just what I like. I am still shocked at how much I enjoyed the lamb. Garlic naan comes with the buffet and is brought to the table hot from the oven. It, too, was great. The naan was nicely browned without being burnt and the garlic flavor was strong but not overpowering or bitter. For dessert I had some kheer and gulab jamun balls. Kheer is one of my favorite ethnic desserts and this was as good as the rest of the meal. The gulab jamun was good as well, but they do a cold presentation which I'm not a fan of. I like them hot. Service was friendly and attentive and my water and naan were both refilled as needed. I did try some of the vegetarian dishes and they were also quite good, but I forget their names.

Guru Palace has a somewhat larger selection at their buffet. One our visit, they had bone-in chicken curry, boneless chicken tikka masala, a bone-in goat dish, and tandoor chicken for the non-vegetarian selection. Among the vegetarian items were paneer, vegetable korma, some bjahis (sp?) and a few other. They also have a salad area and another area for creating your own filled pastry whose name escapes me. Dessert is there as well.

The chicken curry was surprisingly bland. Nothing really jumped out at me other than the bone-in pieces of chicken were a pain to eat. The chicken tikka masala was good, but the chicken pieces seemed to be dry or something. Oddly, they also had perfectly straight edges where they were cut. The texture wasn't as tender as India Oven's version and it just didn't seem as good to me. I really liked the veggie korma, though. Quite sweet but with a nice flavor. They do give you a choice of plain or garlic naan and we chose garlic. We got about six or seven large pieces and at least half had very burnt/blackened patches that were quite acrid to eat. Some of the garlic had a very bitter flavor like it was fresh and uncooked. The kheer for dessert seemed to have a heavier hand on the spices. It was good, but unbalanced. The gulab jamun, on the other hand, are served warm and were perfect. If I wasn't limiting my sweets, I would of had a lot more.

Service was another story. We were seated right next to where all the staff came and went from the kitchen/prep area. Our waiter, the other waitstaff, and possibly the owner walked by repeatedly without offering to refill Tara's empty soda glass which was right on the edge of the table. I even saw one look right at it and continue without pausing. At one point when our waiter checked on us, I asked for ice (my water was luke-warm) and he said OK and kept going. After watching him cycle through the kitchen a few times without bothering with my ice, I stopped a waitress and asked for some. She dutifully dumped 4 ice cubes into my water and moved on. We could see glasses at other tables full of ice. Needless to say, this didn't make us feel overly welcome.

One thing that really bugged me was that several tables were letting their young kids run rampant around the restaurant. I'm not sure if they were related to the owners or not, as some people who spoke to them went into the back. They were quite unruly and nobody ever tried to get them under control.

India Palace is my obvious favorite of the two. It's got a slightly smaller selection, but it seems more balanced and I enjoyed it more. The service is much more friendly and polished. Their buffet is $7.95.

Guru Palace was full for our 2pm Saturday visit, so they seem to have quite a following. However, for me, the service, kids running around unsupervised, and bitter garlic flavor of the naan didn't do it for me. Their buffet is $8.99.

India Palace will keep my business for now.