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NIAGARA FALLS – Once upon a time, if you mentioned “Indian restaurants” in downtown Niagara Falls, thoughts probably turned to the long-since forgotten “Turtle,” a snapper-shaped structure that housed a Native American cultural center, as well as a restaurant.

There weren’t any “Indian” places serving the culinary delights of the world’s second-most populous country.

My, how things have changed.

Indian restaurants are probably the second-most numerous (behind Chinese) in the region now and outnumber any other ethnic restaurants by far in the downtown area. You can sample tastes from virtually any section of the subcontinent.

One of the newest such restaurants, Mela, offers many of those diverse tastes in one convenient stop. It also happens to be one of the best of the local dining spots celebrating Indian flavors.

Located in a corner of the former Niagara Club at the foot of Goat Island (right around the corner from the still-standing “Turtle” building), Mela has the best of both worlds when it comes to Indian dining: One can order off the rather extensive menu, featuring selections from the north, south and Punjab areas, as well as Jain vegetarian dishes, or you can partake of the daily all-you-can-eat buffet, featuring a representative selection of Indian tastes.

Ordering from the menu may cost a little more ($11-$15, generally, while the buffet goes for $12.99 per person), and you can also make special requests, or partake of the small-plate menu. Offerings range from the popular tandoori oven dishes to kebabs and butter chicken, to a variety of tasty vegetable offerings.

You can wash it all down with Masala Chai ($3), a heavy, sweet tea brewed in milk, or a creamy, fruity, refreshing yogurt-based mango milkshake ($3.50), among other tasty native selections (or the usual American suspects).

On a recent visit, we elected to try the buffet, which gave us a wide-ranging sample of tastes from two types of rice, several vegetarian dishes, curry chicken, mushroom curry and several other options. It really served as a nice primer for the first-timer or the uninitiated, giving visitors a chance to sample the sweet and spicy sides of the menu, as well as several in-between dishes.

It was also quite satisfying for the “experienced” Indian food fanatic, as my daughter claimed to be.

There were also chicken nuggets, fries and cheese sauce, as well as a salad bar, for those who didn’t turn out to be quite as adventurous as they had thought.

We started off with the Jeera rice, a white rice flavored with cumin that was fairly subtle and served as a nice topping for some of the sauce-type dishes, like Dal Makhani (lentils and kidney beans flavored with butter). There were several Jain vegetable dishes, the best of which, in my mind, was a green bean-based dish that was beautifully seasoned. We also enjoyed the Aloo Gobi, a dish consisting primarily of potatoes and cauliflower in Indian spices that gave it a yellowish tint.

Many folks seem to associate Indian food with curry, and there are several dishes featuring that distinct, robust and aromatic flavor, but there are many other dishes to choose from offering a variety of quite different tastes and textures.

The chicken curry featured large chunks of bone-in chicken simmering in a thick sauce, while the mushroom curry seemed to have a bit more of a bite, with its spicy aftertaste.

Our server brought a good-sized plateful of Naan, the traditional Indian flatbread. It was fresh from the tandoor, soft and tasty with a succinctly seasoned exterior. It was great for sopping up some of the sauces, and I also ate some topped with the veggies and curry chicken.

The buffet also offered Idli, which we originally took to be small, breadlike buttons but are actually a white cake made from lentils and rice. We definitely preferred the Naan to the Idli, which was fairly bland.

The buffet also offered Upma, a thick, porridge-type dish apparently popular for breakfast. We initially thought it to be some sort of mashed potato dish with peas but later learned that it was semolina-based. It was good, although nowhere near as spicy or tasty as some of the other offerings.

Other recommended dishes from the buffet: the Sambar, a vegetable stew made with pigeon peas; the vegetable rice; and the cucumber raita, a thick sauce made with yogurt and apparently used to help offset the spiciness of many Indian dishes. We found that it made an excellent complement to the Naan, as well as a tasty salad dressing.

From the menu, the butter chicken ($14.75) was a mild, creamy, tomato-based dish that was quite pleasing. The Chaat Samosa ($7.75) was a really good appetizer, a stuffed-pastry dish with potatoes and peas.

Mela is a nice little place, with a large statue of the Hindu god Ganesh in the center of the dining room and the sweet aroma of incense streaming forth from his feet.

A large-screen television plays a steady stream of Bollywood movies. In the back, there’s a comfortable sitting area for post-dining digestion and conversation.

The restaurant is clean and well-kept, and seemed quite popular with visitors as a steady stream poured in one recent weekend afternoon.

All in all, a nice Indian dining experience.

email: niagaranews@buffnews.com