(Clockwise from left) Pakora, a deep-fried, onion, yellow… (John Lindner, Baltimore…)
If you're a fan of Indian buffets and you're anywhere near 322 N. Charles and haven't already discovered Lumbini Restaurant, you owe it to yourself to check out this small, quiet Nepalese/Indian restaurant.
Alongside Indian standards, Lumbini introduces highly complementary fare from Nepal, the southern Asian country that shares borders with India and China.
Lumbini is certainly capable of becoming your favorite Indian buffet stop, both for its collection of tastes and it's conversation-friendly ambience.
12:04 The dining room's orderliness, its straight lines and right angles of tables covered in white cloth, are softened by low lighting that lends a sense of intimacy even to tables situated in the middle of the room.
Lumbini's copper serving dishes are set unobtrusively against its south wall, effectively separating seated diners from those plating up their lunches and heading back to their tables.
12:09 The plan was to order Lumbini's chicken dal which is not only typical Nepalese fare, but often consumed twice daily. It consists of the dal, a lentil soup with many traditional variations, a grain — usually rice — and a curried meat, like chicken in this case.
The server's expression suggested ordering chicken dal off the menu at $13.95 was a sign of madness when so much variety could be had at the buffet for four bucks less. Yes but, the counter-argument ran, we wanted a genuine Nepalese dish. She pointed out that dal is among the buffet offerings, along with a few other distinctly Nepalese dishes. Her persistence paid off: She got her way, and we got the dal and a slew of other wonderful samples of both Nepal and India, including a new favorite: chicken chili.
12:12 The first bit on our plates was pakora, a light, battered, deep-fried vegetable — in this case onion — a brilliant alternative to french fries. It paired well with other buffet mates, including the yellow dal, which is a fine, rich lentil meal by itself but shines in pairings with rice and most other meats and vegetables.
12:21 The dining room begins to fill. The dress is predominantly business class. The buffet line lengthens but, no matter where you happen to be seated, you're out of the way of the snaking band of diners waiting to plate up.
Near the end of the course of copper serving trays was another dish our server recommended as characteristic Nepalese: the flaming red chicken chili. Unlike Lumbini's bright tandoori chicken, which is on the mild side, the chicken chili is color-coded for heat. It brought a stunning pepper-fire combo that ran comfortably below overwhelming. No reaching for the Kleenex. Just a robust, permeating sensation that seemed to run through taste stages of red, green and black pepper. For fans of moderate to high — but not numbing — heat, this could be a new favorite. It's also available on the menu.
In no way are all Lumbini selections geared to the heat-seeking adventurer. The chicken tikka, for instance, was tasty yet tame — perfect for guests who don't care to turn up the heat or those looking for something familiar or popular. Speaking of heat, most of the dishes we sampled, whether spicy hot or mild, were just warmer than room temperature, a casualty of doing time in the serving trays. It's worth mentioning, but hardly unusual and nowhere near off-putting enough to rate more than casual notice. When was the last time you had a steaming-hot entree from a buffet serving dish an hour after the opening bell?
12:38 Near the end of our meal, we realized we couldn't think of any Indian buffet of any repute that we didn't like and wouldn't return to, but Lumbini's selection and range of tastes and temperatures, along with its reserved vibe, pushed it to the top of our go-to list.
For clock-watching business and worker lunches, getting in and out of Lumbini with time to spare should present no problem, especially if you don't waste a bunch of time trying to order from the menu. The added attraction of Nepalese nuance in an Indian menu is a bonus. The overall quality and excellent presentation of spices and heat could make Lumbini a fast $10 lunch favorite.
Where: 322 N. Charles St., Baltimore
Contact: 410-244-5556, lumbinirestaurant.com
Lunch hours: 6 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday-Saturday
Lunch entrées: $11.95-$18.95
Lunch buffet: $9.95
[Key: Outstanding: ✭✭✭✭ Good: ✭✭✭ Fair or Uneven: ✭✭ Poor: ✭]
Dining time: 34 minutes