I am a sucker for a decent Indian buffet. As a fan of Indian cuisine generally, I’ve long gravitated toward the chance to taste seven or eight dishes, then go back for seconds of my favorites.
Practically every Indian and Pakistani restaurant in Western New York offers a lunch or dinner buffet, and I have tried most of them. When I first heard of Spice Kitchen, which opened in the same storefront as an Indian grocery named Spices of India, I was not expecting much.
I was so wrong. Spice Kitchen offers the best Indian buffet I know of in Western New York. It’s $8.95 at lunch, with about eight dishes and two Indian sweets, and $12.95 at dinner, with about 14 dishes and four Indian sweets. (Prices are less for children.)
What you get is an unusually broad and vivid array of Indian dishes, drawn from the 20-plus regional cuisines of India. Service is friendly, not just English-fluent but keen on helping you understand the dish you’re looking at, its ingredients, history, provenance and such. They answered every question I had. Spice Kitchen is like a graduate seminar in Indian cuisine, with dinner thrown in, for $13.
Half of their dishes I’d never seen on a buffet before. Plus airy, light naan bread, baked fresh for each customer, served plain or buttered. Plus a chaat bar.
Let’s talk about chaat. Think of it as Indian nachos.
You load a plate with crunchy things, sesame sticks, chips, puffed rice and puffs called puri. Then you tear the tops out of the puri and doctor it up to your taste with chickpeas, chopped onion, cilantro, tangy white yogurt, sweet and sour brown tamarind and mildly spicy green cilantro-mint-chile sauce.
You can get even more elaborate with salad bar ingredients or the vast array of super-intense salty spicebombs known as Indian pickles, ranging from green mango to dried lime to gooseberry. (Use sparingly until you know what you’re dealing with.)
Then there’s the buffet. There’s no tandoori chicken, but you probably won’t miss it. Dishes are switched regularly, but a recent visit found chicken dishes ranging from southern Indian (bone-in chicken braised in coconut broth ) to northern (Kashmiri chicken, bone in pieces simmered in a bright red sauce that was mostly sweet bell pepper with a hint of chile spice) and Chinese-Indian (chicken “Manchurian,” chicken fritters in a cornstarch gravy flavored with garlic and soy sauce.)
There are always at least one paneer dish, with cheese cubes in one creamy sauce or another. There’s always a goat dish. Once I liked its tender funkiness; another time I found it too chewy.
You’ll find vegetarian dishes, like a dal or two, based on beans or lentils. Classic channa masala, or spiced chickpeas, is a regular. Vegetables such as bitter gourd with greens are regulars, too, and you’ll see things like bhindi masala, okra with onion, bell pepper and tomato, tindora achari, “ivy gourd cooked in pickling spices,” aloo baingan, potatoes with eggplant, and aloo tenga, potatoes in spice gravy.
There are always two fried appetizers. I liked the crunchy triangles stuffed with spiced chicken, and got seconds on vegetable pakoras. Battered vegetables had softened and weren’t worth it.
Those are the hard decisions a worthy buffet forces: developing a strategic plan is necessary. Or you might not even have room for dessert. If you never warmed to the syrup-soaked doughnut holes of gulab jamun, which go so well with the strong milk tea, or got into the chewy sweetness of carrot halwa, perhaps you would be interested in the cooler of scoop-your-own ice cream. (A mercilessly efficient kid bribe if you need one.)
Besides the buffet, you can order a la carte dishes including grilled kabab sandwiches in freshly baked pita ($7.95) and dosas, the big southern Indian crepes rolled around various fillings. Either are worth the trip, even sans buffet.
The chicken kabab is terrific. It’s moist, made from thigh meat, and studded with whole coriander seeds, chopped red onion and chiles and cilantro. Then it’s wrapped in a fresh naan with lettuce, tomato, and mystifyingly, something like Thousand Isles dressing.
The masala dosa ($6.95) was excellent, too. The crepe was lacy-crisp at the edges and had a noticeable fermented tang. The spiced potatoes hidden inside were gently flavored with curry leaves and spices, and the green chile coconut chutney was a welcome addition. It also comes with vegetable soup.
One note: the background, default chile heat level is higher than the local average for buffets. It didn’t leave anyone suffering, though. The setting is cafeteria-like, and you pay after you eat, at the grocery register. But they’ll bring you all the water and naan you want.
Even with a grocery store on the other side, Spice Kitchen has raised the bar on the Indian buffet.
Spice Kitchen: 8 plates (Out of 10)
Explore diversity of Indian regional cuisines for $13 at outstanding buffet/grocery
WHERE: 438 Evans St., Williamsville (633-4800, www.spicesofindiawny.com)
HOURS: Lunch is served 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., dinner is 5 to 9 p.m.
PRICE RANGE: Kabab sandwiches and dosas, $6.95-$7.95; buffet is $8.95 lunch, $12.95 dinner.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes.