I love Indian food almost as much as I love sushi, enticed as I am by the cornucopia of smells, textures, vibrant colors and visual aesthetic. How better to satisfy my omnivorous cravings than by indulging in the occasional Indian food lunch buffet? Contrary to what you might think, Indian buffets are not the gluttonous brainchild of some capitalistic enterprise designed to take advantage of the American appetite. It’s actually a product of Indian tradition starting with the Sikhs 500 years back, born out of necessity for feeding large crowds after a prayer session in the temples. Peacock Gardens happily honors this tradition with a daily lunch buffet that satisfies my Indian food fix without emptying wallets.
The oddly elegant yet disjointed Peacock Gardens anchors a strip mall of Indian, Arab and Asian shops—oddly elegant because the smallish main dining room bedecked in palatial golden browns and tans contrasts with its neighboring banquet room reserved for elite patrons, a gig outfitted in shades of red and filled in by plain round tables and red chairs more suited to a ’70s diner. Perhaps because of the holidays (or because we arrive late during the lunch rush), we’re the only patrons in the dining room, segregated in a strange role reversal like Brahmans and untouchables from the Indian patrons next door who’re enjoying a more godly and exotic feast. The aromas waft across the glass partition and make our steam table offerings pale in comparison, even though the variety on this side more than traverses the expanse of the Indian subcontinent.
Our adventure at the steam table begins with the precursors—green Indian salad (iceberg lettuce, cucumbers and tomatoes) and a spicy mix of soft lentils, cilantro, potatoes and red onions, raita (yogurt), mint chutney and papadum. Next in line are the hot entrées, occupied first by the fried samosas (triangular shaped pastries filled with curried potatoes and green peas) and various pakoras (vegetable and chicken fritters), of which the dry chicken pakora sorely misses the mark. The basmati rice in its lonely steam table vigil is followed by the vegetable entrées—palak paneer (creamed spinach cooked with cubes of cheese amidst a mild hint of spices), a wonderfully spicy and tasty vegetable jalfrezi, channa masala, baingnan bhaarta (sliced eggplant cooked with a creamy, sweet tomato and onion sauce and garnished with cilantro) and dal makhani. The meat entrées finally appear, a goat curry that we thankfully bypass, followed by the murgh makhani (better known to American palates as butter chicken—velvety boneless tandoori chicken cooked in a creamy butter and yogurt sauce that’s savory but not overly sweet) and chicken tikka. Only one dessert pops up, the classic gulab jaman, which is fried balls of dough, bathed in sweet honey syrup.
The service, typical of Asian restaurants, borders on silent, sullen and virtually absent, except that our waitress kindly graces us with a generous helping of garlic naan, the leavened flat bread that we dip into our painter’s palette of pureed foods, and water refills. I fail to distinguish the spices that make the Indian food experience so rewarding, not even in one of my favorite dishes, the chicken makhani. The channa masala appears bland until the spice kicks in and leaves a lingering heat on the tongue, cooled only by a dose of the raita. My favorite plate ends up being the jalfrezi, the vegetables so sweet and fresh and each its own pleasant element. I desperately needed the gajar ka halwa (carrot pudding) or the kheer (chilled rice pudding served with nuts) and fruits would have finished off an otherwise good meal, but alas, these fine items were not available.
While Peacock Gardens certainly isn’t the worst Indian food I’ve tasted, it doesn’t quite match up to Irvine’s India Cook House. Still, sampling the smorgasbord of the Indian subcontinent without suffering the monetary repercussions is well worth it.
Peacock Gardens, 23347 Golden Springs Drive, Diamond Bar, (909) 860-2606. Lunch for two (without drinks), around $18. Open seven days, lunch from 11AM–3PM, dinner 5PM–10PM. (AE, D, MC, V)