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A most glorious buffet

SANTA FE, N.M. — I’ll start with a confession: I’m not big on buffets. First, it’s a matter of will power; the array of choices tempts me to eat too much. Second, too often food is not hot enough or has been left in the steam tray (or whatever else keeps it warm) too long. Dishes dry out, get picked over by customers. Third, serving spoons get gummed up, food gets dropped where it shouldn’t and, well, don’t get me going on the potential germ issue.

That said, if every buffet was as well-tended as the one at India Palace, I never would have developed this prejudice. Santa Fe’s long-established downtown Indian restaurant, India Palace is a first-class establishment from the greeting at the door to the presentation of the check.

At lunch, for $9.50 (not including drinks) customers can select from soups, salad, entrees, rice, vegetables and desserts. The buffet is set up in a separate room and the staff makes sure the beautiful, ornate covered bowls are filled and hot. The dining room tables are set with white tablecloths and pink napkins arranged like fans in the water glasses. Soft lighting complements the natural light from outside. Decorated with art from India, the restaurant sits at the edge of the Water Street parking lot, and will validate a free hour in the lot for customers. While the view isn’t very exciting, you can’t beat the convenience.

India Palace
WHERE: 227 Don Gaspar Ave. Santa Fe, 505-986-5859
HOURS: Open daily, lunch: 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; dinner: 5-10 p.m.
FOOD: Indian. Beer and wine available.
SERVICE: Very good.
AMBIANCE: Quiet and classy.

My friends and I served ourselves at the buffet while the waiter brought us a basket of freshly made nan – soft, fragrant Indian flatbread still warm from the baking. He conscientiously refilled our water glasses and a friend’s soda, and removed used plates. With a bit of reminding toward the end of the meal, he brought our tea, a lovely, peppery chai. I have always enjoyed excellent service at dinner here, but I wasn’t expecting this level of attention at the buffet.

The luncheon choices change, but always include chicken and meat dishes as well as soup, salad, rice, several vegetable selections, chutneys, fresh fruit and desserts. I loved the chicken marinated in yogurt and spices and cooked in the amazingly hot Tandoori oven. The meat was slightly crisp on the outside and juicy and tender within with a subtle hint of smoke. I thought the chicken Makhani presented on the buffet was even better. After baking Tandoori style, the meat is removed from the bones and added to a creamy tomato sauce with a blend of spices that made my taste buds do the happy dance. The other non-vegetarian choice was beef kofta curry, meat balls in a mild brown sauce.

One of the friends who joined us for lunch is vegetarian. I knew India Palace’s regular menu would offer her many choices, but I wasn’t sure about the lunch buffet. Not to worry. Her favorite was the aloo gobhi, tender stems of cauliflower and bits of white potato cooked with fresh garlic, onion and magical fragrant seasonings that gave the dish a golden glow. I like that dish, too, but I thought the saag paneer, spinach cooked with a bit of cheese, was even better. The mild cheese added a gentle creaminess that seemed to enhance the flavor of the greens.

The buffet at India Palace provides a fine introduction to some of the most popular dishes among the amazing variety in Indian cuisine. The onion bhaji, for example, bears a close resemblance to American onion rings, except the onions are dipped in a garbanzo bean batter before being fried. (And there’s no ketchup.) Peas pilao sounds exotic, but here it means rice, not too dry, not gummy, served with green peas mixed in as punctuation. And despite their fancy name, the meatballs in the brown sauce were mild enough that a reticent child would enjoy them.

I loved the sambar, a lentil vegetable soup from southern India which combines tart and spicy in a far lighter and more sophisticated way than Chinese hot and sour soup. Some places in India serve the soup as breakfast with idli, a rice bread which was also available on the India Palace buffet table.

The condiments, fresh cucumber yogurt raita, chutney and a variety of raw vegetables can be eaten alone or mixed into the buffet dishes. You’ll also find desserts at this end of the table: fresh fruit, a bright orange mango custard and kheer, Indian rice pudding with saffron and almonds. Unless your grandma was from India, you probably never had rice pudding quiet like this. Not too sweet and laced with cardamon, the pudding tempted us to go back for seconds.

The dinner menu offers a larger range of choices than the buffet, including a Tandoori offerings such as rack of lamb, as well as fish and prawns in several different sauces, chicken, beef and vegetables galore, including a mixed-vegetable curry and vegetable samosas as an appetizer.