Restaurants are pulling out all of the stops in this here New Economy and lunch deals are gaining steam.
To wit: Ambala Dhaba, Westwood location, now offers a lunch buffet.
Chowhounders, I among them, have long debated the merits of various West L.A. Indian joints and this one comes up a lot. I've always liked it. AD offers dishes not often found at other eateries and proudly serves goat. Their lunch specials, which price a little higher than most buffets, are fantastic. They offer chicken, fish and goat dishes that are more earthy and spicy and less saucy and sweet than your typical fare (which is available as well). They are generous with the bread and cook it to my liking (well done - edges a little crispy but still soft enough for wrapping and nudging).
So I was a little nervous to see the big Lunch Buffet sign out front because the contrarian snob in me enjoys eating at the only buffet-free Indian restaurant in town. On the other hand, the Homer in me loves some all-you-can eat so I grabbed a plate and made my way through the chrome-domed chafing dishes.
Underneath lid number one hid some cauliflower pakoras. I thought this was a good start - a little different than the usual samosas; not as satisfying, though, and they don't stay crispy under the lid. The rice contains a a few small, turmeric-colored vegetables (probably folded in - maybe it's a light biryani?) - it's nice and has some food value. The saag has potatoes, not paneer. A chicken tikka masala and another curried chicken dish look familiar and are decent. There was a nice vegetable korma - it may strike some as a little plain but I appreciated the fact that it wasn't swimming in goo - it allowed some of the bolder spices to come through. There were chickpeas - channa masala, or something like it.
Pieces of goat shortribs on the bone are in the far corner. I like this chewy meat and am thrilled to see that some of the bones HAVE MARROW IN THEM. They are small and dry enough to eat with your hands which makes it easy to suck the marrow out for the final bite. Hell, that alone pretty much ensures I'll be back.
Plenty of fruit for dessert; fresh salad available with actual vinaigrette for dressing (i like raita but not as a salad dressing - I don't claim to know what's proper or authentic i just know i don't like it). At the very end i was glad to see couple of their chutneys. Ambala Dhaba's lunch specials always come with a small serving of chutney/pickled tidbits. Again, these are dishes that you don't get at Bombay cafe or East India Grill - STRONG tasting and sometimes very spicy-hot concoctions; I think that East Asians need to come up with a word for the flavor that characterizes these pickled carrots, peppers, limes, etc. They aren't savory or sour or sweet or salty and they certainly aren't umame... someone help me out here.
About 5 minutes after sitting down, here comes the waiter with a sizzling hot piece of "tandoori chicken" with some onions. Nice touch but I'd leave the tandoor meats to Chutney's - kind of dry and not that flavorful and left me wondering if they actually have a tandoor (they say that they do). The naan came shortly thereafter... i really love it... they MUST have a tandoor oven! I ordered a Coke but, fyi, they also make a nice limeade and, for the adventurous (seriously - drink a whole one of these and call me in the morning), Jal Jeera, a north Indian drink made with mint, ginger, tamarind, cumin & black salt. This is the single most powerful drink you will ever consume. It will cure anything and everything.
Anyway, it's obvious that I like this place and I'll be back to see how the buffet evolves. It wasn't perfect but it offered some diversity and, because not all of the food is swimming in starchy, oily goo, this is probably a healthier choice than most Indian smorgasbords.
If you're trying to manage expectations in a group-type-work-lunch situation it might not be the best choice because the funkier items are really the best offerings and the familiar items aren't quite what you expect.
PARKING NOTE: Ambala Dhaba's parking lot is much maligned because it is extremely tiny and busy and awkward. However, parking at a meter on Westwood Blvd. is EASY. I've been eating here at prime lunch hour for years and park across the street at a meter almost every time. I've never had to park more than a block away. Just remember to bring enough quarters to keep up with those recently-doubled meter rates!
2406 S Barrington Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90064
1781 Westwood Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90024