Tustin. Dusty Tustin. The town everybody's heard of but nobody can actually find. The little town with the big chow credentials. And we were there. And hungry. And on Newport Avenue, going to go check out the Tustin branch of India Sweets and Spices. And all of a sudden, "OMG HAVELI CAN WE GO THERE PLEASE INSTEAD" and a sudden right turn and we were there.
Their lunch -- seven days a week -- is a buffet. This buffet is also possible at dinner Tuesday and Wednesday nights. Other nights, it's an order-from-a-large-menu.
We sat and were asked if we wanted plain or garlic naan (garlic, natch), and I ordered masala chai, which, to my very great surprise, arrived "pulled" (poured from pitcher to pitcher back and forth so that it aerates and froths).
I'm always a bit leery of buffets, because the food is seldom fresh, the foods in back get slopped into the foods in front, and if the steam trays aren't hot enough, you have issues there too.
Happily, not a single one of those fears was triggered at Haveli. The food was absolutely fresh, steaming hot (the food, not just the steam table), not got the "skin" of heat lamp food, and it was as clean as a whistle. We dug in.
Today's lunch buffet included spinach, chana masala (curried chickpeas), vegetable korma (in coconut curry sauce), dry-curried potatoes, stuffed karela (bitter melon), curried pakora (fritters), chicken tikka masala (marinated in yoghurt, baked, and bathed in curry sauce), chicken curry, tandoori chicken, pakoras, samosas, rice, pulau (flavoured rice) and salad, plus chutneys, pickle and raita (cucumber yoghurt).
A note here: I do not eat meat in Indian restaurants. It just feels... weird. I grew up in Woodbridge Township, New Jersey, home of the largest Gujarati population outside India, and to me Indian food is vegetarian, because nearly all my Indian friends were vegetarian. So I can't tell you if the chicken dishes were any good -- though my wife and daughter enjoyed them.
What I can tell you, though, is that the spinach was absolutely delicious -- like creamed spinach, but contained no dairy (I asked) and with just a bit of spice to it. The vegetable korma, which had peas and carrots and other "boring" vegetables in it, was the best I've ever had in the US. The stuffed karela -- well, let's put it this way. If you LIKE karela, you are going to go insane for their stuffed karela. If you don't like karela or it's your first time eating it, it's... hm... you know the face you see in Warner Bros. cartoons when somebody eats alum? Karela is not called "bitter melon" for no reason, but Haveli do a good job covering the bitterness with flavourful filling and a delicious curry sauce. The chana masala actually had some chile heat to it, which surprised me, and a delicious acidic (lemon?) tang on the aftertaste. The curried potatoes were essentially steak fries, but not fried, and with a very good dry curry on it (meaning that it wasn't swimming in curry).
The salad was very good if a bit boring (iceberg, good tomatoes, cucumbers and lime wedges to squeeze over as dressing). The only thing I didn't care for was the curried pakora -- the texture just wasn't right to me.
The sign that this was excellent northern Indian food was that when we were done, there was no oil left on the plate. So many Indian restaurants load up their food with ghee to the point where the food is exuding fat as it cools; Haveli does not do this, yet their food tastes rich enough.
Desserts on the buffet were gulab jamun (balls made of milk solids and flour in a very sweet syrup, often rose-based), "dry-style" saffron rice pudding, "wet-style" plain rice pudding, and watermelon. The rice puddings were absolutely delicious, the watermelon was ripe, and I enjoyed a gulab jamun for the first time in my life (they're always sticky, horribly sweet to me -- these were not).
The best part about this? $8.99 a person, all you care to eat, and $3 for a bottomless cup of pulled tea. Much more expensive than India Sweets & Spices, obviously, but the difference is that you can take people here for lunch without being embarrassed. It's got linen napkins and decor and good service, whereas India Sweets & Spices, though delicious, seems like it should be in a corner of an Indian Railways station outside of Vadodara. Haveli didn't charge us for Die Uberbaby, either, though she probably ate enough to be charged half-price. I tipped very well, and we left very, very happy.
It's right off the 5 freeway. I sense that this will be a regular stop for lunch for me. It was fantastic, it was cheap -- and I wouldn't have found it without Chowhound. Thanks!
Haveli Fine Indian Cuisine
13882 Newport Ave, Tustin, CA 92780