"I can't tell you I'm something I'm not," croons Meat Loaf, unwilling and unable to get a perfect score on his song's three-point checklist. The owners of Indian Buffet Palace could learn a lesson from Mr. Aday. The restaurant is definitely Indian and certainly a buffet, but it is by no means a palace. But like Meat Loaf says, two out of three ain't bad.
Tucked into the concrete plains of Bayers Lake Industrial Park, the unassuming storefront leads to an unassuming restaurant. The inside is dull and sparsely decorated. A couple of big tables sit between a line of warming plates that make up the small buffet and a row of six or seven booths that anchor the right side of the restaurant. A CGI dragon roars, muted, on a television airing DragonHeart.
When we arrive, the restaurant is empty except for one booth, half-full with diners. We slide into one of the booths and sit expectantly for a few minutes, fingers drumming on the table, waiting to be given menus or a go-ahead to start loading up at the buffet. A server eventually saunters over and asks us if we'd like drinks. We each order a mango lassi and she wanders off without another word.
She soon returns with the drinks. The lassi is thick and mild, sweet with the slightest bit of sour, and delectably creamy. With no menus or direction from the server, we ask for permission to help ourselves.
There are only a half-dozen dishes gently simmering, in big, freshly served piles. A pot of soup and basket of fluffy naan sit on the cashier's counter. There are no labels on the dishes, so we ask for a walkthrough. The buffet is a spread of basmati rice, dal makhani, mixed vegetables and tofu, eggplant aloo curry, chicken biryani and chicken kofta masala.
A small stack of mismatched dishes and utensils sit at the start of the buffet line. The food has a homey, made-by-mom feeling to it. A faint whisper of steam rises from the row of chafing dishes, a hint at curried warmth, but once on the plate everything is slightly cool.
The dal makhani is a buttery mix of black lentils and red kidney beans in a creamy sauce tinged with garlic, ginger and coriander. Deep and earthy, it is a mellow counterpoint to the rest of the curries, which, while not indistinguishable, do have a bit of sameness of flavour.
The vegetable and tofu---thick with carrots and onions and firm, custardy tofu---is a good utilitarian curry. Along with the first bite of slight spiciness, there is the warm, mild bitterness of cumin, which is very tasty with the slightly sweet carrots.
Though light on the meat, the chicken biryani is also delicious. The rice is incredibly flavourful, with bright pops of mint and cilantro. The other chicken dish, a warm, pungent masala, is rich with ginger and garlic, with red chili breathing fire into a snappy sauce. The zest and kick of the sauce is a brief distraction from the disappointment of the kofta. The meatballs are unappetizing, with a rubbery mystery-meat quality.
We all agree that the eggplant and potato curry is the best dish of the day. Filled with huge hunks of tender potato and creamy, supple ribbons of eggplant, it's robust and delicious, keen with chili powder and a hint of the sweet, citrus tang of cilantro.
In a warm, full haze we even forget about the soup---it only takes one plate of the heavy, starchy dishes to fill up. It's still no palace, but our $10 were each well spent and the food is more than "ain't bad." In this case, two out of three is pretty damn great.