Most of the time when I hear the word “buffet” I cringe a little on the inside. Sure, you could argue they are economical and offer a wide selection of choices for those that want more variety… but generally speaking the food isn’t as good as plates prepared to order. The food can become too dry or too wet, and often lacks bold flavor. Also, more often than not, I eat more than I should to increase that sense of good value in the back of my mind. Let me explain why you can throw out most of these notions with regard to Indian cuisine.
India has been a host to human civilizations since nearly the beginning of, well, civilization. So they have had millennia to develop variety in cuisine. India has also been part of global commodities trading from the beginning, with the Silk Road and spice trade routes bringing a wide array of spices and food products through the region. Furthermore, multiple invasions and occupations by various empires have had their influence as well. So needless to say, the flavor profile is off the charts. Amaravati (literally, home for the Gods) blends both Northern and Southern styles appropriately for its Midwestern audience.
The buffet offers some great items from the main menu, which was extensive, and they seem to rotate some selections for variety. Dal Tadka, a lentil based sauce flavored with garlic and cumin, was very flavorful and satisfying without being heavy. It is also completely vegetarian. As is another very popular dish, Navaratan Korma – or “nine-gem” curry. Think of this as analogous to vegetable soup. It has a little bit of everything including a great rich flavor, and a little heat. Like many Indian dishes, the “sauce” carries the flavor and rice or flat bread serves as the filler. The naan was nicely prepared: not too chewy, not too dry.
Don’t worry non-vegetarians…Amaravati has plenty of dishes for us, too. The Tandori chicken was very tasty, but this is something I prefer made to order. Sitting on a buffet can allow it to dry out, though perhaps with enough turnover they can keep it fresh. I observed the staff tending to the buffet quite regularly and keeping it in good order. For the record, the chicken was not too dry. The chicken vindaloo really packed some heat and flavor, a perfect example of foreign influence as this dish was brought by Portuguese sailors. Chicken tikka masala is another flavorful dish, also of contested origin, that appears to be a staple on the buffet. Whether it originated in Punjab or Glasgow, I don’t much care; only that it is available.
Moving away from the sauce based options: I had chicken dum biryani and another “fried” rice option. Both were delicious, but were in stark contrast to the amount of flavor in the vindaloo or masala. Add some raita, a yogurt based condiment, for a little cooling refreshment. On my second trip I found sesame chicken nuggets. These were a dry version of the traditional Chinese menu classic. I enjoyed them thoroughly. Another interesting bite, which I can only assume is the result of an Indian-Chinese version of Tex-Mex, was vegetable Manchurian. Admittedly, I didn’t know what to expect. It was red in color which usually tells me hot and spicy; but it was almost sweet. I highly recommend it.
Moving along to some other interesting bits: vegetable pekora, which is a fritter with onion and other vegetables, was rather light for being breaded and fried. Gulab Jamun looks like doughnuts, and I guess they are kind of. They are dough balls made with milk powder and fried. Once fried, they are soaked in cloying syrup. They would probably be good on some ice cream or anything else to spread the sugar content around, but if you are a sugar junky these are for you.
If after sampling all you can from the buffet, or even reading this, you feel like your taste buds have run a marathon or been to war; you are not alone. But there is good news and a remedy right there on the buffet. It is something I would not have come up with on my own, but now I think about often: mango ice cream and mango custard. The custard is a little on the sweet side, but it has chunks of mango, papaya, pineapple, and some other mystery fruit I couldn’t identify; pear maybe? Whatever it was, the custard was rich, creamy, and soothing on a tongue that had just battled curries, chilies, and myriad other spices. The mango ice cream was very good for this therapy as well. It wasn’t overly sweet but still satisfied and offers some coolness if you need to reduce the swelling.
All in all, my two trips to date have been very positive. The owners are experienced restaurateurs and I hope they can be successful in this location. They have the lunch buffet open seven days a week and it’s only $12.99. It's quite a steal as you will not leave hungry. This is also a great way for you to experience a wide array of textures and flavors to determine your favorites. The dining room is quite spacious and if you choose the buffet there is zero wait time. This is an excellent choice for weekday lunch if you find yourself in Southwest Champaign.
2501 Village Green Pl
11 a.m to 2:30 p.m. and 5 to 11 p.m. daily
Photos by Rob Schaffer