Asiana Indian Cuisine in South Austin doesn't attempt to charm diners with aesthetic touches or dazzle and distract with culinary gimmicks.
The walls in the spartan space feature random portrait photography of other cities' skylines, and you could find the dining room's stock tables and chairs at any number of cafeteria-style restaurants.
But judging by the bustling lunch crowd, Asiana's traditional Indian cuisine doesn't require any exterior adornment to bolster the food's appeal.
A packed lunch rush on one visit left the space looking like the remains of a wedding reception, groups of tables pushed together, littered with spent plates and silver. Which is not to imply that Asiana's small staff simply lingers. The few employees on the floor moved swiftly about the restaurant, taking orders, bussing tables and restocking the well-priced ($8.95) buffet.
The steady flow of guests has the positive effect of a constantly replenished buffet. That means fresh tandoori chicken and creamy saag paneer coming from the kitchen at a nice clip, leaving no time for dryness or coagulation to take hold.
The bright burnt-orange chicken tikka masala, spiced with turmeric and paprika for a mild kick and cooked evenly to a startling white, maintained its tenderness and creaminess. The popular dish had no drop off in quality between that which we ordered off the menu at one lunch and the buffet offerings at another.
The butter paneer ordered from the menu had a similar color to the chicken tikka masala, but there is no sin of duplication. The velvety sauce featured notes of maple and nuts, cloaking yielding cubes of cheese curd.
Additional buffet items include a pan fried chili chicken with veggies, which resembled a standard Americanized Chinese restaurant offering sans cloying sweetness, and forgettable fried donuts and lentil patties. The spicy cauliflower represented the buffet's most pleasant surprise. A burning golden flame of color matched the curried heat of the fibrous vegetable that held onto its firmness.
Buffet lunches come with an order of dosa, the buttery crepelike baked good with a texture reminiscent of a fortune cookie. We also tried a masala dosa ($6.99) stuffed with chartreuse curried potatoes.
Three dipping sauces accompanied the dosa, the best among them a robust tomato-based sambar, a fragrant stew carrying fumes of chiles and onions that would make the dish perfect for someone with a head cold. The tomato chutney was a bit thin, and the coconut chutney delivered more ginger than I expected, almost distracting from the coconut but making for a unique marriage of sweet and spicy.
The papadi chat appetizer ($4.99), thin chips topped with bland chickpeas and a bitter and runny yogurt, is best left forgotten. The dish was stingy with the stinging spice sprinkled atop the creation that resembled nachos at the saddest Super Bowl party.
A sizzling platter of piled meats and slivers of onions from the grilled sampler ($14.99) made the failed chat an afterthought. Tandoori chicken, bright with the sunburned glow of the clay oven, shared space with ground lamb sausage, juicy and spicy shrimp and pliant chunks of barrah lamb kebab that had an expressive and roaming gaminess.
Asiana serves both white and wheat flour variations of naan and kulcha. The garlic naan ($1.99) comes as advertised, so be prepared to keep your distance from co-workers if you order the toasty bread scattered with the pungent, baked-in clove. The Kashmiri naan ($2.99), with its toasted coconut and dried berries, offers a more subtle point of entry into the bread offerings.
The comprehensive menu ranges the subcontinent and showcases the influence of the Mughal Dynasty, as my dining guest and New Delhi native educated me. The traditional lamb rogan josh, served in the sturdy decorative metal bowl that carried each entree, moved deeper into the color spectrum than the butter paneer and tikka masala. The brick-red sauce, full of onions and garlic, hummed with aromatics such as cloves and cardamom. The lamb suffered none of the toughness you might expect from stewed meats, even maintaining a surprising kiss of red at its soft center.
You can sample a few of Asiana's side dishes and dessert offerings at the buffet, including a rice pudding allegedly flavored with indiscernible saffron and a yogurt dish (raitha) flecked with carrots and cucumber. The gulab jamun ($2.49) might sound exotic to the uninitiated, but anyone who has enjoyed a Dunkin' Donuts "munchkin" will undoubtedly savor the deep fried milk dumplings served with a simple syrup flavored with cardamom.
Asiana's quality daily lunch buffet seems to attract the majority of the restaurant's business, but to truly appreciate the restaurant, you should investigate the lengthy menu that delivers a broad assortment of well-executed and fresh traditional dishes.
Contact Matthew Odam at 912-5986. Twitter: @Odam