Hadn't been to Taste of India since last year and given my recent trip to two West Philly Indian restaurants over the weekend found my experience interesting.
What struck me most about Sitar and New Delhi during lunch was how crowded they were! Sitar has limited space and the number of people filling up the space made the lunch buffet and "dining" a challenge. It had a nice variety of food and a limited salad bar. Hadn't been to New Delhi in a very long time and I was struck by the spaciousness of the arrangement of the buffet display. The salad bar was separate from the rest of the selections and had a nice variety. As with Sitar, there was a decent variety of food. I was also struck at how noisy (high decibel level) the place was. In prior years, the smell at New Delhi was not enticing. This time, the aroma struck me as being much more appealing.
The experience inspired me to re-visit Taste of India. The interior quickly informs the visitor that this is a place to dine - the walls, decor, tablecloths, etc. create that ambience. But for some reason, this restaurant in particular (unlike Chinnar), attracts a very loud crowd. I have been here many times, and have experienced many individuals, not just sitting in groups of many people, but in tables for two, talking and laughing with no care for their voices overpowering those around them. The place has gotten to be consistently very noisy. Maybe Mondays and the weekends (attracting more families) are quieter.
What struck me as different about TOI than the other restaurants I had recently visited among other factors was the number of desserts on hand. Both Sitar, New Delhi, Spice Kitchen, Chinnar, and others, typically have two or three selections. In the middle of the week (and typical for TOI), the desserts consisted of fruit cocktail (canned), freshly cut up honeydew, custard pudding squares (with a flavor whose name I can't recall - it tasted somewhat similar to rosewater but more exotic), carrot halwa, kheer, jalebi, coconut burfi (fudge), rasgulla, and gulab jamun. (The coconut burfi was as one might expect, fudgelike, without too strong of a coconut flavor which did surprise me. The custard pudding squares were much more flavorful and had a better consistency than what I had at Spice Kitchen. The carrot halwa was too sugary and lacked the well-balanced mixture of carrot/butter/sugar/raisin/pineapple it had years ago. Years ago I had a halwa at Bawarchi which demonstrated to me how it can be made without being overpowered by sugar and butter. The honeydew, while not perfectly ripe, was appreciated for being a fresh alternative to other selections.)
On the day of my visit, there was no "Indian tea," just a table label for it, next to the filled container for mango juice (not lassi). There is no Indian restaurant in this area other than Royal India that offers the salad selections that TOI does (the main salad tray consisted of much more than iceberg lettuce). There is always a Punjabi style salad along with the mainstream iceberg lettuce selection.
TOI does a great job with its version of Mulligatawney soup which can be said to be a slightly spicy and very thick pureed lentil-like soup. I have been to TOI more than a few times where I have noticed that the lunch buffet selection lacks a stand alone green or healthy vegetable entree. With the number of selections, it amazed me that there was no such vegetable dish (other than the salad selections). On this day, the only stand-alone green vegetable dish (other than the chutneys,and salads) was the mutter paneer (which offered peas).
I look forward to at least one dish containing spinach, okra, zucchini, cauliflower (white but healthy!). Peas only go so far! The sauce that the mutter paneer was in reminded me of the sauce one finds in the chicken tikka masala here - thick, rich, and VERY ADDICTING. (I would bet that this sauce is extremely high in fat content. The cream content is prabably very very high which explains why it is so delicious. I found myself able to only eat small amounts of this dish due to the richness of the sauce, which didn't help given that I was seeking some green vegetables to balance the other food!)
TOI's tandoori chicken for some reason comes out with more of a barbecue flavor than other restaurants I have been to. After I have had the chicken here and have it elsewhere, it is like other places fail to "finish" off the preparation/cooking of the chicken!
I am no fan of TOI's version of pakoras. I have had pakoras at Chinnar and they resembled what I associate with authentic pakoras, deep fried where the coating from the besan flour had a solid but light consistency around a lightly spicy and chewy vegetable interior - often what is labeled as "vegetable fritters" is little more than deep fried mush or breading around a very tiny filling. Today's version was labeled as "vegetable fritters," and they looked like a mush mixture that had been breaded and deep fried. If you have had good pakoras, you know the difference.
There was a potato dish which looked like roasted/boiled potato sections that had been coated in some spice and/or herb mixture. They were very good and wholesome, not overly fried and complimented the other dishes very well.
There were many chicken dishes to choose from. There was what tasted like a combination of a vegetable biryani and an asian-inspired vegetable rice dish.
Basmati rice had been prepared in an oil process and was heavier than what gets at Spice Kitchen, Chinnar, and Bawarchi. Naan was very good.
So, with all these dishes, is it not reasonable to expect at least one stand-alone green vegetable dish? I think so.
TOI's weekday lunch buffet is almost $10 and for the selection one gets there, the price is more than reasonable. Nearby restaurants charge less, but one is getting fewer selections. I have said before, that what drives me to return to TOI is its stronger flavors and larger number of selections. What drives me to not return more frequently is the lack of more stand along vegetable dishes, which seem more prevalent at places like Chinnar. (TOI normally has at least either saag paneer or alu gobi. On the day that I was there, I did not consider the mutter paneer an adequate substitute as the "stand-alone" vegetable dish, considering that its weekday buffet prices are a bit higher. )
After I finished the meal, I found myself needing to drink water for hours afterwards. It seemed like only vanilla ice cream was able to balance whatever craving I had to quench the sodium content from lunch.
I do appreciate the varieties, but also know that ordering off the menu or going to a finer restaurant (if you don't have the good fortune of being able to prepare this at home) would get one some selections not found at a buffet such as shrikhand or kulfi.