There will be no food porn in this post. It's about a buffet and not a visually stirring one at that. I only wish the advent of internet Smell-O-Vision would hurry up and arrive so I could share what I experienced when I walked into the Westheimer location of Mayuri Indian Restaurant for lunch. On first sniff, it was a return to my earliest memory, sitting with my parents at the Bengal Tiger in White Plains, NY, tasting my first cumin-scented bites of tandoori chicken.
But the next whiff was spicier, less deeply ingrained in my psyche. Most American diners are comfortable with Northern Indian cuisine. The foods of Southern states like Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Andra Pradesh have been slower to catch on stateside. Less familiar still is the Indo-Chinese cuisine developed in Kolkata's Chinatown, also woven into the mix of aromas.
And though the muted melancholy of the big rain drops that splashed as I entered seemed to call for the immediate comfort of tandoori chicken, I was too attracted to the Day-Glo appeal of a soup identified as chicken hot-and-sour. Both hotter and more sour than I expect from a Chinese-American iteration, its orangeness was still its most notable asset, aside from chiles and what I'm fairly certain were green beans cooked to the brink of a pleasant melt (transforming them just beyond identification).
There were two versions of the Indian Chinese dish known as Manchurian. I'd only tried it dry before, with gobi (cauliflower) serving as the center for a sort of vegetarian Indian alternative to General Tso's chicken. This dry take used moist slabs of fish as its protein and was less spicy than the wallop I'd experienced previously. I found a bloom of heat in the wet gobi Manchurian, which texturally hung somewhere between a thick Indian gravy and sticky Chinese-American sauce.
But on my plates, regions didn't stay separated for long. What's the fun in segregation, when you can scoop up tiny bowls of sambar and daal to eat with your idlis and dosas, but also some of the creamiest, most perfectly spiced butter chicken you've ever encountered? Those idlis may not be as fluffy as you would have hoped, nor the dosas as crisp, but a bit of that butter chicken can fix anything. As can the tandoori chicken, which tasted so similar to the Bengal Tiger's that I nearly shed a tear, both for youth lost and poultry found.
Though I scooped tiny portions of each dish, by the time I was done, I'd gone through three congested groupings—of goat stew next to ghee-brushed naan, a Southern mix of legumes I'd never encountered before pushed aside to make room for biryani laureled in fresh cilantro and mint.
And I ended the meal with something old and something new: Warm carrot halwa was to be expected. Something labeled fruit salad, which turned out to be Del Monte fruit cocktail—I ate enough as a kid to recognize those waxy pink cherries anywhere—served in a pool of mango lassi, however, was not at all expected. And I loved every weird, Americana-by-way-of-India bite. So when I said Mayuri's buffet spotlights Northern, Southern and Indo-Chinese cuisines, I was only telling part of the story. Apparently, there's always room for innovation among the chafing dishes.