If there's one cuisine that is absolutely perfect for the buffet treatment, it's Indian. The braised meats and vegetables and rich sauces can stand up to the long hours simmering as diners come and go, while adventurous eaters can load up their plates with all kinds of things they've probably never heard of before. Wary of buffets? Intimidated by a cuisine you're maybe not 100 percent familiar with? I've got the solution: Head to the newish incarnation of Tandoor, up in the Cooper Creek shopping center.
Tandoor was a fixture along Clark Road for years, but relocated northward about seven months ago. I never went to the old spot, but the new location is pretty. Glittery vases and lanterns adorn the walls and ceiling, and track lighting offers a welcome respite from fluorescence. About 20 tables are clustered up front, while the restaurant's $9.99 lunch buffet beckons from the rear, near the bar.
Man, what a spread. A dozen pots offer everything from salad to dessert, with a serious helping of hearty entrées in between. I pile more than one plate high with impossibly fluffy basmati rice, curry pakora, butter chicken, saag bhaji, chicken curry, rajma curry, vegetable biryani and more. The waiter brings over a basket loaded with blistered and flaky naan, and I dive in.
What stands out immediately is the saag bhaji, a super-rich braised spinach dish that pulls more flavor from the leaves than I thought possible. Toss it with some basmati rice, and you already have your money's worth.
But there's so much more. The butter chicken, cooked in a burnt orange sauce, is braised perfectly: You can pick up a chunk with your fingers without it falling apart, but when you spike it with your fork it tears easily into stringy little pieces. Same goes for the pakora curry, served in a mustard yellow sauce. The pakora, little fritters, are simmered till they're moist and infused with the sauce, but they maintain their integrity instead of just disintegrating. Not an easy feat.
The rajma curry is a bit more prosaic. Filled with kidney beans, it tastes more familiar than its companions, more like a traditional, boring American stew. But served atop the vegetable biryani, it makes for a tasty, if not exquisite, vegetable-based option.
One lovely Tandoor touch: the variety of chutneys you can dump on your dish, with flavors big enough to brighten up even the plainest rice. Onion chutney provides a crunchy texture and the aroma of pickles, while mint chutney serves as a chunky, almost salsa-esque accent. The tamarind chutney is the most intense, a dark, molasses-like sauce that, according to my wife, tastes incredible when drizzled over the restaurant's tandoori chicken.
The one drawback to Indian buffets is that restaurants turn down the heat in order to satisfy spice-averse diners, and Tandoor is no exception. The food is far from bland, but it's missing that burning heat that complements the wonderful blend of sweet and salty you find in most Indian dishes. You can spice things up after the fact, but there's no way to replicate the flavor that emerges when the hot pepper is incorporated into the sauce in its earliest stages. This is a Sarasota food problem that cuts across all kinds of cuisines. I can't even begin to name all the restaurants in town that serve "blackened" fish that is entirely bereft of heat. OK, I'm stepping down off my soapbox now.
For dessert, Tandoor's buffet offers a cardamom-scented rice pudding. While a nice finish to the meal, it's inessential, a bit too thin for my tastes. Overall, though, this is one solid buffet — the best you're likely to find in north Sarasota, bar naan.
8453 Cooper Creek Blvd., Bradenton
926-3077 or tandoorsarasota.net
This is the umpteenth entry in a weekly column dedicated to eats that are cheap. If you have an idea for a place to feature in Cheap Eats, comment below, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or hit me up on Twitter:@LeveyBaker.