Buffets tend to get a bad rap for good reasons, not the least of which is that heaps of food encourage over-grazing and competitive eating, especially where jumbo prawns and miniature desserts are concerned. Who among us hasn’t watched with (take your pick) amusement or horror the wedding guest, cruise passenger or office associate negotiating one last tidbit for a plate of food that’s imitating the Leaning Tower of Pisa?
The more obvious reason for keeping a distance from buffets: Unless the food is dispatched (and replenished) quickly, fatigue sets in atop the steam trays and below the warming lamps.
There are exceptions. Indian buffets are among them, and I’m duty-bound to state my bias up front: If I could eat only one cuisine for the rest of my life, it would be Indian, with its rich kaleidoscope of flavors.
And so it was that I found myself on a recent weekend afternoon at the tranquil Curry Leaf in Laurel, where my eyes were drawn to a fresh spread of more than a dozen dishes, and my nose sensed that something delicious was about to hit my lips.
Look closely at the chafing dishes and platters on display, and you’re likely to see a gold-green porridge that a small sign identifies as haleem. Should you miss it, a host is apt to introduce you to the dish. “You must try this,” he says, placing a sample on our table. “You don’t find haleem everywhere.” He is clearly proud that the restaurant, which opened in May, offers the long-cooked and labor-intensive specialty that’s served after fasting hours during Ramadan.
The recipe for haleem begins with three kinds of lentils that, along with cracked wheat, must be soaked overnight before cooking. There’s a second pot with chicken and firepower in the form of chili, turmeric and garam masala, India’s sweet-hot spice blend. As in making risotto, the ingredients call for constant stirring; burn the bottom of a pot of haleem and you have to start over. The lot — beans and bird — is subsequently blended together; garnished with fried onion, chopped cilantro and julienned ginger; and eaten, piping hot, with naan.
I hadn’t been fasting, yet I devoured the dish as if I hadn’t eaten that day.
Haleem gives the buffet cachet, but it isn’t the only afternoon draw. Meaty choices include better-than-usual butter chicken and tender goat stew bolstered with garlic and ginger. (A high-quality Indian buffet generally stocks goat, lamb or fish.) Vegetarians can feast on cool chickpeas tossed with purple onion and cilantro; the fluffy, saucer-size steamed rice cakes known as idli, enjoyed with coconut chutney and zesty lentil soup, or sambar; and terrific spinach puree dotted with squares of cottage cheese. Heat-seekers can unite around rasam, a thin but intriguing soup coaxed from pigeon peas, tomatoes, tamarind and a little spice cabinet of zingers. The condiments are terrific; be sure to add to your plate the sweat-inducing lemon pickle. And a nice change of pace from white rice is the mustard-yellow tamarind rice garnished with red chilies.
Painted in a soothing shade of green, Curry Leaf is named for the aromatic herb, which looks like an elongated bay leaf and lends its lemony tang to such dishes as chicken chettinad, a South Indian specialty fired up with pepper and chilies.
The spice agent behind this food is Saravan “Sam” Krishnan, best known in the area for his Indian cooking at Udupi Palace (now closed) in Takoma Park. A native of Madurai in southern India, Krishnan is assisted by two others in the kitchen, including a cook whose sole job is to tend the tandoor.
The menu is a deep document. I could spend months exploring Curry Leaf, only to put a dent in the possibilities. Suffice it to say I’m eager to share word about a good place to eat in a pocket of the suburbs that could use more such reasons to hit the road.
A highlights reel would feature, in addition to the lunch buffet, crisp mashed potato patties draped with yogurt and mint chutney — an aloo tikki chaat to remember. Krishnan’s dosas are crisp, hot and slightly sour; try one of the rolled-up crepes, based on rice and lentils, with a filling of spinach and mushrooms. Spinach also stars in the chef’s very good dumplings under a cloak of tomato-cream sauce. Yogurt-marinated chicken emerges from that tandoor succulent and nicely smoky. And I have yet to meet a bread here I wouldn’t want to sop up the remnants of a dish.
Not every plate is licked clean. Saffron-tinted lamb korma is as relentlessly rich as that classic, draped with cashew nut gravy, gets. And if you’re in the mood for chicken 65, head over to Jewel of India in Silver Spring, where a superior version of the Indochinese specialty (blazing with fresh green chilies and hot vinegar) awaits. Gulab jamun is sweet, even by the syrupy standard of the spongy balls of cottage cheese.
For dessert, I prefer a few spoonfuls of loose, cardamom-perfumed rice pudding or, if available, shredded sweetened beets in a sticky mash of almonds and cashews.
The restaurant doesn’t serve alcohol, but its mango lassi whipped up with homemade yogurt is plenty refreshing, and Curry Leaf allows diners to bring their own beer and wine.
For some of us, though, the cooking — a smorgasbord of pleasure — is spirit enough.
13919 Baltimore Ave., Laurel. 301-497-2017. www.curryleafmd.com.
OPEN: 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 to 9:30 p.m. daily.
PRICES: Appetizers $3.49 to $9.99, main courses $8.99 to $19.99; lunch buffet $10.99 weekdays, $12.99 weekends.
SOUND CHECK: 72 decibels /Must speak with raised voice.