Several months ago, I wrote about the BLT pizza that I ate at a restaurant named Kudzu Grille on Philip’s and my first date. Yesterday was the fourteenth anniversary of that day! While we don’t really “celebrate” the day (as all of the anniversary glory belongs, of course, to the anniversary of our wedding in July), we always remember it. Eating at a new restaurant, drinking coffee at Rembrandt’s, walking on the bridge, wondering what the coming days (months, years…) have in store. The excitement of a new relationship…which, in our case anyway, eventually gave way to the excitement of a longterm (i.e. lifelong) relationship, but the kind where holding hands and talking about when we first met (at Chuck E. Cheese’s, where I was convinced that he hated me for months before we eventually became friends-we didn’t date until much later) never gets old. Or just hanging out on the couch and pretending like the rest of the world doesn’t exist, which is what we do most nights.
Yesterday, though, we actually hung out with a friend, our old friend Rachel, who took the photo below. We had planned to have lunch with Rachel last Saturday but then the snow kind of threw off those plans so we ate at Subway with her after church on Sunday in about twenty minutes because I had a photo shoot to do. We had to have a real lunch with her! I can’t remember what, but something had gotten Philip thinking about saag paneer, which I made one time after seeing Aarti Sequiera make it on her Food Network show Aarti Party. This dish consisted of making my own cheese from whole milk & lemon juice, which you know I’m always game for, cutting it into cubes and frying it then combining it with a spicy, creamy spinach mixture. Only her spice measurements lit me on fire and I had no idea that was going to happen. I think I ended up having a grilled cheese while Philip happily ate the spinach bowl of death.
Anyway, as I was saying….Philip wanted some saag paneer, so we had to decide where we were going to go for said dish. There are three restaurants in Chattanooga that we are aware of (perhaps there are more, please tell me if you know of any!) that serve Indian food, and they each serve a lunch buffet daily. This had us a little suspicious because we are not buffet lovers, but we eventually decided to give it a go. We decided on India Mahal because (a) to our knowledge it’s been around the longest; and (b) we had a buy one get one free coupon. We’d been seeing India Mahal for years (it’s been around since 1995) but I was always afraid to try it (truth be told, I’m not a super-adventurous eater. I was a junior in college before Philip and my roommate convinced me to try Chinese food.)…but we’d been talking about it for a long time.
The restaurant wasn’t super-crowded but it wasn’t dead either. The man who greeted us at the door, whom I assume was the owner, seated us in a booth and shook our hands (he shook Philip’s hand again as he was paying). One thing I read over and over about India Mahal is that the owners were extremely friendly and remember people from previous visits. As people came in, it seemed that the man knew several of them. They definitely have some regulars.
The buffet was a couple of tables set up with a cold unit and warming (chafing) pans. Each item was labeled with the name and a description. I was immediately disappointed by the fact that there were no samosas (Indian turnovers stuffed with spiced potatoes and peas) on the buffet….I had been hoping to try them for quite some time. I will have to make them at home….perhaps to share with you? Anyway, I was not disappointed by the naan bread, which is a traditional Indian flatbread cooked in a tandoor oven till it’s crispy and bubbly. Like the best pita bread you’ve ever eaten. I could have eaten nothing but this amazing bread, but I held myself to two pieces so I wouldn’t be miserable when I was done.
I had read up prior to venturing to India Mahal to find out what dishes were safe for someone with mild tastebuds like mine to eat in an Indian restaurant. I was happy to see chicken curry (according to their menu, boneless chicken cooked with onions, tomatoes, ginger, garlic, and fragrant spices) and chicken makhni (also known as butter chicken, described as boneless pieces of tandoori chicken cooked in Oriental spices with tomato gravy and butter). Neither dish was hot, but both were deliciously seasoned. I loved the flavor of the tomato gravy on the makhni but thought that the chicken in the curry tasted fresher than the butter chicken.
As far as vegetarian items, there were many options and I definitely could have easily made it out with a full stomach without eating a single bite of meat. I was frightened of the saag paneer since the menu describes it as “spicy spinach cooked with pieces of fresh homemade cheese” so I just put a tiny spoonful on my plate, but it was definitely within my heat range and was delicious. I ended up going back for a larger serving, along with more of the vegetable biryani, basmati rice cooked with vegetables, nuts, and spices….similar to fried rice but not. It was amazing and I didn’t even bother with the plain basmati rice (by the way, basmati rice is nuttier than plan old white rice). The channa masala-chickpeas cooked with tomatoes, onions, and spices-were quite tasty but I especially loved the eggplant and potatoes (I didn’t write down the name and it isn’t on the menu) cooked with tomatoes, onions, and spices. It sounds like an odd combination but it really works. There was also a vegetarian dish called dal makhni, made with black lentils, but I did not try this one.
Clockwise from top (starting with the bowl): raita (cooling yogurt sauce with cucumbers and mint), chicken makhni saag paneer, channa masala, potatoes & eggplant, vegetable biryani, naan bread, and curry chicken
Philip was extremely excited about the desserts: kulfi badam pista (basmati rice cooked in sweetened milk with raisins and almonds) and gulab jamun, deep-fried balls of dough soaked in syrup. He loved the rice dish, as he is a huge lover of rice pudding, but I wasn’t really a fan. I don’t know what it was….perhaps the fact that it was made with basmati rice which infiltrated the flavor, or maybe there was some rogue spice that I didn’t care for in a sweet dish. Philip described the gulab jamun as “like deep-fried Munchkins”, which was an apt description. He filled the bottom of his bowl with syrup that he then slurped from the bowl (I was having flashbacks to his Cracker Barrel maple syrup drinking days) and said it tasted like cotton candy. I was dying to have a mango lassi but decided to save my sweet tooth for some ice cream that we got at Bi-lo last night (I’ve had an ice cream craving since December and my beloved Nana’s is closed for the winter).
The only thing that might border on a complaint or suggestion that we had was that our friend pointed out that, while the food definitely wasn’t cold, it also wasn’t piping hot….the danger of sitting in a chafing dish, I suppose. I want to go here at night so we can order off of the dinner menu. The total for two lunch buffets plus a fountain drink was $23.09. If you like well-spiced food with a friendly atmosphere, I would definitely recommend India Mahal.
India Mahal is located at 5970 Brainerd Road, Chattanooga, TN 37421. You can call them at 423-510-9651. They serve a lunch buffet daily from 11:30-3:00 and a dinner menu from 5-10. You can like them on Facebook.