1303 N. Washington Blvd., #4, Sarasota
312-6264, 350-2059 or currystation.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 email@example.com or hit me up on Twitter:@LeveyBaker.
Ghee whiz! Sarasota's in the midst of a miniature explosion of Indian cuisine, with two new spots either in or just outside downtown: India Palace, right on Main next to C'est La Vie, and Curry Station, which opened a month ago on 301's west side, just north of 12th Street. I tried India Palace's lunch buffet a few days after it opened and came away disappointed — the food wasn't bad, just bland, and not nearly on the same level as Tandoor — but I swiftly began hearing excellent things about Curry Station. Let's go.
The restaurant's strip mall space has been home to a number of eateries over the years. I remember at least two Vietnamese incarnations, and the mosaic made out of tiles on the wall looks exactly like a ham and cheese sub, so perhaps it was a sub shop at some point, too? Bottom line is that if you've been to the space before it looks pretty much the same. Ten tables are spread around up front and the lunch buffet ($8.99) is set up straight back.
It's deserted today, a pollen-clogged Sunday, but that's likely because most of the surrounding businesses — car shops, small grocery marts — are closed. I'm ecstatic. We've got the buffet to ourselves.
The selection is smaller than you find at either Tandoor or India Palace, with just seven hot options, plus both seasoned and plain basmati rice, naan, salad greens and dessert. But that limited selection varies from day to day, ensuring you can discover new dishes over time. Handwritten notes tell you what's what, but it's not like I really care. I'm going to eat it regardless.
The tandoori chicken is an early highlight. It's not sitting out on the buffet but is instead brought to the table alongside a long basket stuffed with triangles of naan. The chicken has been roasted to perfection, caramelized all the way to black in spots, but it's still tender and then some. A spoonful of tamarind chutney or loose raita brightens up the heavily spiced flesh; a forkful hits every note you could ask for.
The curry chicken — braised well — rests in a bath of spiced-up tomato sauce, perfect for cleaning up with a wedge of naan. The bread has been cooked till it swells and blisters in spots, but the inside remains soft and airy. Yes, please, we'll take a second basket.
On the vegetarian side of things, the daal tadka is a bit bland but satisfying. Stirring up the thick lentil sauce with some of the restaurant's oh-so-soft basmati helps fortify it. More tasty is Curry Station's mix of black beans and chickpeas, well-spiced and also a nice match for the rice. A third vegetarian dish is what the restaurant calls roasted masala vegetables — strands of cabbage and florets of broccoli seasoned and tossed in the oven. The flavor's not going to overwhelm you, but it's a nice counterpoint to the heavier items, and something I haven't seen on a local buffet before.
Also unusual: fried fish. Fish is a tough sell on a buffet, since the setting usually ensures dried-out meat. Curry Station's isn't dry, I'll give them that, but it still doesn't taste fresh. I don't see how it could after sitting in a steam tray. But if it were cooked to order, the dish could be solid — it's the one genuinely spicy item on the buffet, and its flavor is strangely reminiscent of Jamaican jerk.
The dessert today is your standard sweet rice pudding, a nice enough finish to an enormous meal, and the pakora is an un-greasy, fried disc of potato, hard to argue with.
I've spent a lot of time describing the buffet, but I should note that Curry Station also has a full lunch and dinner menu, with all the variety you'd expect. And the service is exceptional — generous and warm enough to fool you into thinking you're eating at a friend's house. Overall, I think I'd still take Tandoor for its fuller variety of buffet items, but it's a haul out east to Cooper Creek, and Lord knows I'm happy to have Indian options.