PINELLAS PARK — It's the coolest food I've eaten in a while: oniony, cucumbery yogurt raita dotted with tiny, tapioca-sized chickpea flour dumplings. The little fried beads, called "boondi," lend not just texture (spongy, like a Cocoa Puff at the bottom of the bowl) but also a nutty, rich flavor to soften the sharp yogurt tang.
At Taste of Punjab's Indian buffet lunch, I found myself swooping back around to scoop up just one more spoonful, spreading it generously over buttery basmati studded with fragrant toasted cumin seed.
Opened at the site of Dragon Express in January, Taste of Punjab is a lovely addition. Chef/owner Rajinder Singh's palate is spicy and flavorful but balanced, with a good eye to contrasting colors and textures. We've had a recent influx of Indian restaurants in the area, but certainly there's room for this newcomer, with its mostly familiar northern Indian dishes, offered in generous quantities at a fair price.
The room itself is a big, comfortable box with a small buffet line near the entrance. Service is a work in progress, servers-in-training alternately hovering and absentee. Still, their intentions are good and there's an aura of warmth and good cheer about the place.
The menu's greatest density of standouts cluster in the bread section: Beyond the hot-off-the-tandoor regular naan ($1.99, but free with the buffet), you'll find naan stuffed with soft curried potato or spongy paneer cheese ($2.99 and $3.99) and a range of buttery, flaky paratha ($2.50 and $3.50) delicious enough to spoil your appetite. Add to these an order of deep-fried vegetable pakora ($3.75 and usually on the lunch buffet) and you're going to be hard-pressed to delve too deeply into the curries and biryanis.
But delve you should. Mild and creamy chicken korma ($11.99) is a crowd pleaser (come on, kids, just try it), the coconut chicken ($12.95) a little more kicky and intriguing with its chewy bits of grated coconut.
Many of the same preparations are brought to bear on lamb, beef and seafood: tikka masala, saag (that's the forest-green chopped spinach sauce) and rogan josh (a kind of brown, mild curry heady with cardamom rogan is Persian for clarified butter, josh means passionate). Our hands-down favorite was a lamb vindaloo ($12.99), not fiery, but with oomph. This version had a little tart kick that might have been tamarind pulp and a little cider vinegar. Scoop it onto rice and adorn it on all sides with condiments like a cilantro-mint chutney or salty-spicy achaar (classic Indian pickled veggies marinated in citrus and chile) or a sweet mango chutney. A dab of this, a bite of that and you hit all the taste notes of the classic six "rasas": sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter and astringent.
Vegetarians are also well served at Taste of Punjab, with a range of vegetable curries and pulse dishes that showcase yellow lentils, black lentils and chick peas. The most exciting one I tasted was a bhindi masala ($9.50), mostly okra pods enlivened by fresh ginger, tomato and onion. Singh uses fresh ginger quite a bit, a bite unexpectedly lit up with a bright, spicy pop of it between your teeth — nice.
The restaurant's beer and wine list is less inspired than many of the dishes: the usual suspects, and not too many of them. Dessert on a couple of visits was limited to a thin rice pudding cradling sweet white basmati and bits of pistachio. Called kheer, it's about as homey and sustaining as dessert gets. Still, I'd forego it for another scoop of that crazy boondi raita.
Laura Reiley can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2293. Her blog, the Mouth of Tampa Bay, is at www.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.