Those who prefer timid flavors and sparingly seasoned food should stop reading now. Taste Buds of India in South Miami is not for you. It's also not for those searching for progressive Indian cooking like the kind served at Gaggan, the world-renowned Bangkok-based eatery that's been turning that cuisine upside down. Instead, the year-old Taste Buds concentrates on traditional preparations of dishes from all over India, as well as Indian-Chinese hybrids that are becoming increasingly popular in North America.
Considering there are but a few notable Indian eateries in Miami, a well-prepared chicken tikka masala, although ubiquitous in London, is still a novelty here. At Taste Buds, tender and moist nuggets of chicken thigh are submerged in a delectable heat-infused creamy tomato sauce. Whether it's spooned over basmati rice or garlic naan bread for an Indian version of pizza, it quickly becomes clear why this protein is the restaurant's bestseller, as well as a favorite of both the subcontinent and Britain.
Chef/owner Arvind Kumar studied hospitality in his native Kolkata and Scotland before moving to Miami in 2010 to realize his dream of owning an authentic Indian restaurant. In May 2014, he opened Taste Buds in Coral Springs, followed by a location in South Miami about a year later and another in North Miami Beach this past April. And if all goes according to plan, by September the 30-year-old will unveil his fourth restaurant, in Coral Gables.
Although he's traveled throughout the United States, Kumar chose to settle in Miami because of its international population and relative lack of genuine Indian cuisine. Nevertheless, during its first six months, the Coral Springs restaurant sat virtually empty, and his partner and best friend quit the business. Kumar says it was a combination of hard work, dedication, and an article in the Sun Sentinel that put Taste Buds on the map and helped fuel his success.
Situated in the former Barceloneta Sunset space, the South Miami eatery has unimaginative décor that fits the stereotypical description of an Indian restaurant, right down to the Bollywood flicks playing on the TV sets. But Taste Buds isn't the type of place you hit up with your friends before a night on the town — it's a casual neighborhood spot where the food is the main attraction.
For starters, it's hard to go wrong with the lasooni gobi — fried cauliflower florets dressed in a tangy and sweet tomato and garlic sauce. Battered, fried, and seasoned cubes of Indian cottage cheese known as paneer pakora are light and grease-free. However, the texture is a bit rubbery.
A wonderful feature of Indian cuisine is how much it's rooted in vegetable entrées. At Taste Buds, there are plenty of excellent meatless options, including the northern Indian staple eggplant bharta. Whole eggplants are roasted in the tandoor, mashed and sautéed with onions and tomatoes, and seasoned with coriander, cumin, garlic and a house blend of spices. A sprinkling of cilantro completes the dish. The velvety purée is completely addictive and, like nearly everything here, pairs brilliantly with naan or rice.
Another hit is chana masala, featuring chickpeas and tomatoes flavored with ginger, garlic, coriander, and garam masala. Suddenly, being vegan sounds a lot more doable. Dal makhani is slightly heavier because this black-lentil curry hailing from the Punjab region requires not only plenty of cooking time but also a generous helping of butter and cream. The kitchen's unique spice mix will have you dabbing your forehead and reaching for water with every mouthful, but you'll enjoy every sweaty moment. A word of advice: Medium-spicy translates to very spicy at Taste Buds, so ask for mild if you're sensitive to heat.
Despite the large menu, there are no pork or beef items. However, a red-meat craving is easily satisfied by the lamb rogan josh. This dish has its origins in Kashmir and consists of lamb slow-cooked in yogurt. The tenderized meat is incredibly juicy, while black and green cardamom from India lend the plate a seductively aromatic quality.
The signature dessert is homemade mango mousse. Made with mango pulp, heavy cream, sweetened milk, and saffron extract, the mousse is similar to ice cream, only much sweeter and slightly smoother.
In addition to finalizing work on Taste Buds Coral Gables, Kumar spends most of his time traveling among his restaurants to oversee the kitchen and front of the house. All the chefs are trained in his recipes and techniques, some of which he acquired from his parents, and others he learned while studying hospitality. Service is generally good, although at times distracted waiters forget to bring out items or refill water glasses.
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Not all cookery needs to be ambitious to impress. There's something comforting about eating tried-and-true classics prepared with love and attention to detail. Perhaps in London, where fabulous Indian food is as commonplace as Latin classics are here, Taste Buds of India would elicit only a friendly shrug.
But we're in Miami, and this small yet authentic chain is a much-needed addition to the dining scene.
Taste Buds of India
5850 Sunset Dr., South Miami; 786-216-7904; tastebudsofindia.com. Lunch Tuesday through Sunday noon to 3:30 p.m.; dinner Sunday through Thursday 5:30 to 10:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5:30 to 11:30 p.m.
Chicken tikka masala $17.95
Garlic naan $4.95
Lasooni gobi $7.95
Paneer pakora $7.95
Eggplant bharta $14.95
Chana masala roasted $14.95
Dal makhani $14.95
Lamb rogan josh $18.95
Mango mousse $5