Haveli - Tustin
I know next to nothing about Indian cuisine, and am not afraid to admit it. But if you don't have to be a musician to know a good song when you hear one, then it doesn't take a Madhur Jaffrey to appreciate how delicious Indian cooking can be or to recognize that it is one of the most complex, spicy, and robust of the world's cuisines.
This lack of knowledge does make ordering off Indian menus an intimidating experience though. Even the most able English translations can only give you a vague idea of what's coming.
Enter Haveli's buffet.
Although they did not invent the Indian buffet, this Tustin restaurant has been getting raves from just about every corner of the foodie universe -- and for good reason.
For a pittance ($7.95 for lunch or $11.99 for dinner) I can skip the menu roulette and do what must be done when I don't know what to order: Try everything.
And everything at Haveli is worth trying.
Spices dominate the food and pepper the crisp garlic naan. Fenugreek, cardamom, ginger (and a slew others I cannot identify), each sing its own notes, but together, in each dish, they harmonize -- the culinary equivalent of an entire symphony orchestra in your mouth.
There's white-meat chicken chunks swimming in a gurgling brew so silky and ruddy it looks like thick lobster bisque. Don't let that fool you though. It's spicy -- meant to be eaten with rice to temper its strength. Next to it, the dark-meat of the bird simmers in a darker sauce with the color of toffee. It's hotter than its neighbor, but finishes with the slight tartness of tamarind.
Veggies gets the saucy treatment too. A semi-sweet, but scorching gravy has button mushrooms floating in it like buoys. Another has peas and cubes of homemade cheese that tastes like mild ricotta.
Potatoes are cooked with onions, dry-seasoned with curry, and blasted with whole spice pods. Eggplant is reduced to mush, as is the spinach, concentrating the flavors that will invade every sensor on the tongue, leaving none unstimulated.
And as for a salad there's one mixed up from garbanzo beans, diced tomatoes and raw onions. This one will refresh the palate like no other salad can. But it will leave your breath smelling like, well, like raw onions.
Pakoras -- fried vegetable fritters covered in chickpea batter -- are fresh, crisp, and hot. They're ideal for dipping in Haveli's perky-green, herby sauce which smacks of mint.
Once you finish gorging, there's the gulab jamun, golf-ball-sized orbs of fried dough steeped in syrup. It tastes like bread pudding soaked in sugar water.
But if you're lucky, there will be gajar halva, a pudding of sorts consisting of shredded carrots, spices and sugar. I never had it before my visit to Haveli, but that's exactly why I love their buffet: I wouldn't have any idea what it was if I had just seen it on the menu.
But now I do. And if you've read this far, you do too. Think of what else you'll discover at the buffet.
Haveli Fine Indian Cuisine
13882 Newport Ave # G
Tustin, CA 92780
NOTE: Haveli's dinner buffet is only available on Tuesday and Wednesday nights. Their lunch buffet is offered daily.