Restaurant Reviews

House of Lunch

When a restaurant has been operating since 1975, as House of India has, it's bound to garner faultfinders as well as fans. The most persistent criticism here has been spotty service — which was definitely at its lowest point one recent lunchtime, when a waiter called Coral Gables cops to try to have a female diner arrested over a dispute about ... lentils. (She wanted a small order of dal. He brought, and charged her for, a large order.)

Moral of the story: She should have had the lunch buffet, where prices are set — $9.95 Monday through Thursday, $10.95 Friday, $11.95 Saturday — and the tarka dal flows like water. The traditional lentil dish is properly buttery, too, not the carelessly crafted crapola offered in many all-you-can-eat spreads.

Vegetarians do well at this daily changing affair, where recent items included ghobi makhni, crunchy cauliflower florets in a rich cream sauce that was flavorful but, as was true of many buffet offerings, borderline salty. Chana masala was hearty, which is typical of this popular Punjab chickpea curry, but more interesting than most, owing to crunchy vegetables and fresh cilantro. There was also navratan korma, nine long-cooked vegetables in an exceedingly mild creamy sauce, described as containing raisins, almonds, and cashews, though no fruity/nutty taste was discernable.

For carnivores, the table offered two curries — earthy goat, and chicken in sauce flavored with "chef's special spices" (most of them, apparently, salt) — plus tandoori chicken. Described as juicy, the clay-oven-baked chicken pieces were dry; a garnish of caramelized onions that was mostly burnt black didn't help.

Samosas (triangular pastry casings — often tough, but here light and crisp — with spicy potato/vegetable filling) and pakoras (chickpea batter fritters) were among the usual snack items. So were more unique pastries: dahi vada (puffy fried lentil batter discs, like mini pooris, soaked in savory yogurt), and potato/onion-stuffed masala dosas. These South Indian rice/lentil-batter crêpes, whose sourdough tang is positively habit-forming, were added to the menu about eight years ago, said a manager. Since most Indian restaurants in Miami still serve strictly northern cuisine, addicts will consider this southern street treat alone worth the buffet's price.

The buffet also contained an unusually generous assortment of relishes: three traditional dosa/uttapam accompaniments (onion/tomato chutney, coconut chutney, and sambhar, thin tamarind-spiked South Indian lentil/vegetable soup), plus a brain-searing hot sauce, sweet cucumber raita, and cilantro, mint, and mango chutneys.

Starches included two rice dishes — a one-dimensional pilaf with green peas and onion, and marginally more-aromatic spiced basmati — and nan. The unleavened bread was pleasantly spongy when fresh from the tandoor, tough after cooling its crusts for a while — the eternal buffet bugaboo.

Precision preparation made two items ordered from the regular menu — Maharaja Patiala korma (genuinely juicy chicken in a nut-studded sauce) and paneer masala (fresh cheese in a buttery, tangy tomato sauce) — somewhat superior to buffet curries. Still, they lacked complex spicing. And an à la carte uttapam pancake (similar to dosa, but thicker) was ruined by onions as scorched as the ones in the steam-tabled tandoori chicken.

Desserts, ranging from common gulab jamun (syrup-soaked fried cake balls) to more exotic semiya (South Indian noodle pudding), suffered from another typical buffet problem: The tastiest choice, ras malai (cheese dumplings in cream sauce), was virtually decimated more than an hour before lunchtime ended.

Hence, for the money, House of India's strongest suit is good value: i.e., the buffet. Just arrive early. And don't stiff your server.

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Pamela Robin Brandt