We were expecting a mom-and-pop operation in a little strip mall in Citrus Heights, so we were floored when we pulled up in front of India Oven in Citrus Heights. It’s a Taj Mahal of a restaurant looming on a rise all by itself, the scent of curry wafting in the air.
Inside is a beautiful 3,500-square-foot dining room, with comfy banquette seating, wall art, a handsome full bar, track lighting and chandeliers. Around back are a loading dock and an industrial-sized kitchen, which service not only the restaurant but also the 11,400-square-foot White Lotus banquet hall, which accommodates crowds of 900 and fills up just about every weekend for wedding receptions and pre-wedding events.
“My father was a chef in New York City 20 years ago,” said owner Rummy Cheema, whose background is in computer technology. “In 2004 my parents opened a restaurant in Grass Valley, and from there I stepped into (the business).” Now there are four India Oven restaurants, with a fifth to open in Elk Grove within six months. A stand-alone banquet hall, the 350-capacity White Orchid, is due to open soon on Date Avenue in Sacramento, near Madison Avenue and Interstate 80.
Two lunch pals and I were at India Oven for the buffet, a staple of Indian restaurants that, in our experience, range from mundane to very good. This one was the best we’ve encountered, a spread of fresh meats and vegetables in sublime sauces, all of it fragrant with spices and layers of flavors. The punchline: It’s just $11.
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Where to start? For round one, we spooned excellent mint and tamarind chutneys onto one part of a plate, and added bhature (puffy fried bread), saag masala (creamy spinach redolent with spices), channa masala (chickpeas, onions and tomatoes in a silken sauce) and fish pakora (pieces of deep-fried fish).
We preferred the background heat in the mint chutney to the sweet taste of the tamarind chutney, and thought the thin, slightly garlicky naan (bread cooked in a tandoor oven) delivered to the table at the start was better than the bhature. The deeply flavored spinach puree was an ideal textural complement to the chickpea “stew.” We found the fish pakora over-battered and a little dry.
“This place is a home run for vegetarians,” said one lunch pal, surveying his plate of corn masala (spiced corn kernels), vegetable biryani (soft-crunchy basmati rice with carrot, peas, corn, green beans, cashews and raisins) and vegetable jal frozi (veggies marinated in ginger and garlic, cooked with “natural herbs”).
“The vegetable dishes are excellent, yes,” said a second lunch pal, forking into masala aloo (spiced potatoes), “but so are the cheese cubes in tomato sauce (shahi paneer) and the chicken tandoori (yogurt-and-spices-marinated chicken cooked in a tandoor oven).
Note: The traditional, ancient tandoor oven – a cylindrical appliance made of clay and brick and commonly used in India and Pakistan – is heated to high temperatures by a direct-heat fire. Meat cooked in the tandoor is usually skewered; the dough for the accompanying bread – naan – is slapped on the inside of the oven, where it bakes in seconds. The gas-fueled, stainless-steel version in restaurant kitchens works on the same principle, only quicker. The tandoor’s intense heat sears the juices inside meats and fowl and gives some crisp to the outside.
We came out scooping in round two, loading plates with delicious vegetable pakora (deep-fried veggies in spicy batter), raita (cucumber in house-made yogurt) and flavor-filled lamb and chicken curries (meltingly tender, again in excellent sauces). Goat curry was pleasantly mild and a bit chewier than the lamb. The chunks of tender breast meat in the chicken tikka masala swam in a golden sauce with multiple layers of spicing.
There was more we didn’t sample – veggie-stuffed potato patties, a noodle dish, several desserts and an assortment of fresh fruits – but we had to call it quits or summon an ambulance.
“What’s so surprising is I liked every single item,” said one lunch pal, a discerning diner.
“The corn was my surprise treat, but the others were really excellent,” said the other.
I wondered what it would look like if we ordered the buffet “to go.” Would a truck be involved?
Where: 6105 Sunrise Vista Drive, Citrus Heights. Other locations: 3511 Truxel Road, Sacramento, 916-249-0205; 845 Twelve Bridges Drive, Lincoln, 916-409-2600; 722 Freemason Lane, Grass Valley, 916-249-0207
Hours: The buffet is available 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. daily at all four locations, or order from a lunch menu. Dinner is 5-10 p.m. daily from a dinner menu.
How much: $ (for the buffet)
Information: 916-249-0204, www.indiaoven.com