1116 Elmwood Ave., Buffalo NY 14222
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Amherst Buffalo Indian
"The item that most excited us on the buffet was the dessert called Jalebi - brightly colored, super-sweet rings of deep-fried dough and sweet saffron and cardamom syrup."
Having spent many hours dining in Western New York's Indian restaurants over the years, one stood out from the rest due to location: Buffalo's India Gate, the Elmwood Avenue location of Amherst's Taste of India. By way of background, we'll note that we loved Taste of India fifteen years ago when it was the closest Indian restaurant to UB's North Campus, and later started splitting our time between it and a newer competitor, Moti Mahal. With the passage of time, however, both places sunk below their prior standards, such that we were close to appalled when we revisited Taste of India last year; its once impressive lunch buffet was filled with unappealingly overcooked items, the ambience was unpleasant, and its interior seemingly hadn't been touched for years. Could India Gate be any better?
In short, the answer is yes, but not by much. We stopped by India Gate on a Wednesday, unaware that it offered a $13 dinner buffet on this particular night, and thus opted to sample dishes from both the buffet and the kitchen. To its credit, India Gate is a clean and decently decorated restaurant, with red cloth-topped booths and tables, matching red-cushioned benches, black chairs and blue carpeting. Though its buffet isn't huge, it has a fine mix of vegetarian dishes, meat dishes, and desserts on offer in the back of the spacious seating area. Servers are well-dressed and attentive, if not consistently friendly, and armed with both complimentary hot Naan bread and water. Even in the evening, the dining room was brighter and its ambience more pleasant than Taste of India's at noon.
India Gate's buffet options were predictable, but looked pretty good. In addition to the obvious Chicken Tandoori - oven-baked, yogurt-marinaded drumsticks and breasts almost invariably served in a bright red hue - there were Lamb Curry and Chicken Tikka Masala meat options, plus vegetarian picks such as Bhajia - deep-fried, battered vegetable fritters - the sauteed, ginger and spiced cauliflower and potato dish Gobi Alu, and the ginger and tomato chickpea dish Chana Bhatura, to name most of the dishes. Basmati rice, chutneys, and some modestly pickled achar-style vegetables were on the buffet, along with a large bowl labeled "Hot Sauce." Sure, the buffet was missing items we like to see, such as Samosa dumplings and additional meat or seafood dishes, yet everything that was there appeared to be fresh, so we tried about as much as we could handle.
Unfortunately, nothing was much better than okay. The Lamb Curry was populated with pieces of meat that were small, overcooked and more than occasionally fatty, mixed in with an abundance of sauce and plain vegetables. Similarly, the Chicken Tikka Masala contained far too few pieces of actual meat, and what was there improbably tasted as if it had been cooked to the point of dryness; this was a shock given that the chicken typically soaks for some time in the tomato-based sauce. Amazingly, the best of the meat items was the Chicken Tandoori, which was entirely plain - mild is standard for this baked dish - but even if the pieces tended to be small, they were tender inside, and not overcooked outside. We wouldn't call it good, but it was par by Chicken Tandoori standards, and better than the others.
Concerned that we might not really be getting the full India Gate experience, we decided to go beyond the buffet meat offerings to sample two menu items: the Lamb Achari ($12) and the Chicken Shahi Korma ($13), items that we've sampled at dozens of Indian restaurants before and use as benchmarks of flavoring and meat quality. The only difference between these dishes and the buffet versions was that the pieces of meat were slightly - and we mean slightly - larger, though not better in either quality or preparation: both dishes suffered from the same overcooking as the buffet offerings, with the chicken tearing into semi-hard shreds and the lamb tasting chewy and fatty. The Achari, a dish typically known for a spicy pickle sauce, was hotter in temperature than flavor, and more conspicuous in onions than pickle pieces. By comparison, the creamy Shahi Korma was supposed to include raisins and cashews, but didn't seem to have any; there were a couple of pieces of odd, gummy cheese mixed in with the chicken pieces, which we couldn't bring ourselves to finish based on their texture.
Other items we sampled generally followed in the same mold. India Gate's fritters were crispy enough and filled with a good combination of thin-sliced vegetables and batter, but were lukewarm; the Gobi Alu was bland, and the Achar pickles - normally a real highlight - were only lightly spiced, and contained too few of the classic Indian veggies we typically enjoy when we find this item at buffets. Three different chutney dipping sauces were also available at the buffet, but we didn't have enough to actually use them with.
Not all was lost: the four pieces of Naan we received in a basket were all hot and tasty, though never replenished, and the Kheer rice pudding was packed with rice, made with a properly sweet and milky syrup, and served just as cold as it should have been. However, the item that most excited us on the buffet was the dessert called Jalebi - brightly colored, typically super-sweet rings of deep-fried dough with sweet saffron and cardamom syrup; we can still recall trying it for the first time many years ago at an Indian restaurant, and have sought it out in bakeries ever since. It broke our hearts to find that India Gate's rendition was limp: the batter tasted nearly stale, a mix of slightly crispy and soggy parts served at room temperature with a sauce that was sweet, but not spiced or otherwise flavored enough to save the Jalebi from mediocrity. At any Indian bakery, we could easily eat unhealthy numbers of these treats, but at India Gate, it was far too easy for us to stop eating. That's not a good sign at any restaurant, let alone one with a buffet.
Overall, India Gate is far off the mark of the area's best Indian places, falling well below Kabab & Curry and slightly south of Tandoori's, which offers somewhat better food at higher prices. As with Taste of India, the chief reasons to consider dining at India Gate are its proximity to a college - here, Buff State - and its pricing, which is affordable but not aggressive by Indian standards. We wouldn't rush back to either place based on the food quality, but those seeking a decent Indian buffet will find a fair option at India Gate.
[Note to readers: We normally link to the web sites of restaurants we cover, however, we have not done so with India Gate's official "tasteofindia.com" web site as it triggers a serious malware warning, which says that the URL redirects to an infectious address. In the event that this site is fixed, we'll gladly add a working link to that site.]