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February 04, 2005

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Publication Date: Friday, February 04, 2005

A spice by any other name ... A spice by any other name ... (February 04, 2005)

Turmerik shines best at lunch

By Mandy Erickson

Indian lunch buffets frequently suffer from three problems: dishes that are not suited to sitting out on a steam table, food that waits too long and lack of imagination with the selection.

But Turmerik, on Sunnyvale's restaurant row, restored my faith in the genre. It featured some unusual dishes such as dumplings in yogurt and tandoori vegetables. It avoided the pakoras, vegetable fritters that seem so popular but are always stale. And everything tasted as if it just came off the stove.

The presentation at Turmerik is also a cut above: The restaurant's upstairs dining room, where the buffet is served, is elegantly decorated with turmeric-colored walls and tapestries of mirrors and embroidery. (Turmerik is just an alternative spelling of turmeric, a bright-yellow spice often used in the restaurant's curries.) The food waits in classy stainless-steel serving dishes, heated by Sterno-fed flames, that adorn a tablecloth-draped serving table.

Not surprisingly, the price is higher than the usual $7 or $8 for a lunch buffet, but at $10.95, it's not outrageous. And the food is worth the small splurge.

One of my favorites was the chicken tikka masala, tender boneless pieces of chicken in a savory, golden butter-and-tomato sauce that reminded me of honey.

A dish described as "South Indian rice curd" was a cold mixture of yogurt, rice, tomatoes and cucumbers, a salad that's eaten with a spoon. It was quite spicy, but the whole fresh chilies floating on top gave us fair warning. The salad made for a refreshing contrast to some of the heavier curries.

Indian cheese in spinach puree is a classic buffet item, but it's a patient dish that holds its flavor well, so it's ideal for the steam table. And Turmerik's version was quite good: The spinach, lightly spiced with nutmeg, was so intense it was almost sweet. The soft white cheese had a brilliant green hue -- Turmerik marinates the cheese in spinach before cooking it in the clay oven, or tandoor, which gives it the bright color.

Vegetable dishes generally present a problem for the buffet table, because they grow limp as they simmer away. Turmerik's solution was tandoori vegetables: broccoli; red, green and yellow bell peppers; zucchini; and tofu cooked in a tandoor. Cooked in the tandoor, the vegetables retained their crispness.

There were a few missteps on the buffet. One was dahi vada, wheat-flour dumplings in a mildly sweet cold yogurt soup topped with tamarind and mint chutneys. It was an odd dish that didn't quite work. The dumplings were a bit stale, and it wasn't clear if the soup was a dessert.

As for veggies, Turmerik should have stuck to the tandoori vegetables and the mixed lettuce on the buffet table. Its green beans podial were limp and grayish in an unremarkable tomato sauce.

Turmerik often rents out the upstairs dining area, so dinner, served a la carte, takes place downstairs. The walls are painted in the same bright yellow, only they sport painted faux windows.

When my sister and I dined there a weekend night, the meal started off quite well. Our cocktails, a mango martini of white rum with pureed mango ($8) and a cosmopolitan of orange-flavored vodka ($7.50), were cold and delicious. The fragrance of ripe mango emanated from the martini, and both drinks had the perfect amount of sweetness.

The appetizers we tried were excellent. Five generous pieces of achari chicken ($4.95) were moist, terrifically tender and covered in whole spices. The potato and spinach cakes ($3.95) were six small disks of deep-fried spinach and potato. Outside, they were a muted green, crisp and hot. Inside, they had a brilliant green color and intense spinach flavor.

These came with a set of three chutneys: a mildly sweet tamarind, a medium-hot bright-green mint and a fiery pickled mango. The mint and tamarind chutneys enhanced the chicken, but I liked the subtle flavor of the potato and spinach cakes on its own. The mango chutney I found overly bitter.

The meal faltered, however, after the appetizers. My vegetarian thali ($14.95) featured four curries, most of which lacked inspiration despite the beautiful metal, leaf-shaped plate on which they arrived.

The paneer makhani, cheese cubes in a tomato, onion and ginger sauce, were the best of the four. The faintly spicy, rich sauce complemented the mild cheese well. But the cheese pieces, which are fairly bland, were too big.

The cauliflower curry, with potato and peas, was dull, and the cauliflower was watery. The lentils bukhara, a mix of lentils and spices, was both lackluster and lukewarm. The green beans and carrots in a mild cream saffron sauce were limp and overcooked, though the sauce was rich and flavorful.

These curries were accompanied by a nice raita, which was refreshing, slightly sour and full of crunchy chunks of cucumber with the skin still on. It also came with saffron-flavored basmati rice.

My sister's goat curry ($16.95), in contrast, was excellent. Chunks of goat, a dark meat with texture similar to brisket, were surrounded by a flavorful, thick spicy paste. Bits of almond in the curry provided extra bite, and whole cardamom shone through the spice mixture, providing an extra kick of flavor.

A garlic naan ($2.95) filled our table with a wonderful garlicky scent, but the bread was dry and a tad chewy.

While Turmerik offers dozens of wines from around the world, plenty of them available by the glass, we found that our slightly sweet, fruity cocktails complemented the spicy curries well.

And they were large enough to last through dessert. My carrot halwa ($3.95), a dish sometimes described as carrot fudge, was earthy, a feature not usually associated with dessert, so it took a little getting used to. It's made by cooking grated carrots and milk until they caramelize and thicken into a mass. But I found, the more I ate it, the more I liked it.

The gulab jalum ($3.95), also known as Indian doughnuts, were two overly greasy balls soaking in a syrup. They had a faint flavor of cardamom, which I would have liked more of.

Turmerik's service was exceptional at both meals. Because I arrived before my friend for lunch, the hostess took my name, then brought her to my table as soon as she arrived. At the buffet, the servers removed our used plates and filled our glasses promptly. At dinner, they visited us just frequently enough to ensure we had what we needed without hovering.

Turmerik succeeds best at lunch: The beauty of a buffet is that you can take small amounts of everything, then go back for the really good stuff. And though the quality of Turmerik's dishes is mixed, the buffet has plenty of delicious offerings to return for.
Dining Notes

Turmerik 141 S. Murphy Ave., Sunnyvale (408) 617-9100
Hours: Open for lunch buffet Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday 12 to 2:30 p.m. Open every day 5:30 to 10 p.m. for a la carte dinner

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