By LAURA Reiley
Times Food Critic
For four years, India Grill was downtown's quick-and-easy, moderately priced Indian buffet lunch spot. We hardly took a seat before we were back up again, stalking the steam trays of tandoori chicken, palak paneer, lentil dahl and fluffy basmati.
Last year the landlord decided to inhabit the space himself, leaving Manoj Gupta to look for a new home for India Grill. Even after Green Chili Indian Bistro opened at the beginning of this year, downtown still lacked a heap-it-up-and-chow-it-down Indian lunch buffet (Green Chili started with a plated a la carte approach but has recently switched over to buffet).
It took a few months for a suitable space to become available. Denise Becknell decided to take her vibrant vegan and raw food further down Central Avenue, moving Leafy Greens from 409 to 1431. Gupta took over the 409 Central Ave. space and set to work, opening on Sept. 19.
Despite fresh curtains and booths, the new India Grill contains the ghosts of restaurants past. It's an awkward, boxy space, lacking the warmth of the previous India Grill. I'm hoping as time goes on they can warm it up a bit. (Art? Plants? Do away with the overly large payment counter?)
The lunch buffet, while a buck more expensive (used to be $8.95, now $9.95), is the familiar lineup. The curious thing is that the buffet is not an option for to-go orders, presumably so that downtown workers don't heap a to-go container to the brim. My guess is that business is being lost — it's less convenient to call ahead and then wait for an order. Also, the a la carte options ($11.95 to $13.95) are a little pricey for a weekday lunch. How about offering to-go buffet in those smallish cardboard boxes?
For dine-in customers, lunch is neon-pink tandoori chicken, very moist, sitting on a bed of white onion; trays of lush butter chicken, slow-simmered mild lentils and spinach with Indian cheese; a perfunctory iceberg salad; tasty vegetable pakora; and a quartet of sauces (a tamarind to add a sweet intensity to dishes, a spicy cilantro sauce, a cooling raita and a zingy onion pickle); and a nurturing rice pudding. It's all competently made and very mild, made to mix and match over rice and scoop up with warm, tender naan.
With the same a la carte menu at lunch and dinner, dinner seems like the better deal, with the tandoor-roasted baigan bharta eggplant and tomatoey okra bhindi masala (both $10.95) the most dynamic dishes. (A nice touch: Vegan dishes are indicated as such on the menu.) The most popular items include lamb rogan josh ($12.95) and chicken tikka masala ($12.95), but I'm partial to the rich chicken kashmiri ($11.95), its yogurt sauce luscious with an almond and cashew paste.
Beverages include the usual Taj and Kingfisher beers as well as a sassy mango lassi ($1.95) and a handful of unexpected, but affordable, Argentine wines. Service can be a little harried so far, not uncommon in a new restaurant. Gupta and staff still have some details to work out, but it's good to have India Grill back.
Laura Reiley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293. Her blog, the Mouth of Tampa Bay, is at blogs.tampabay.com/dining. Reiley dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses. Advertising has nothing to do with selection for review or the assessment.