Lunch review: House of India hits all the right notes

On Snowden River Parkway in Columbia, two little strip malls about a block apart each boast an Indian restaurant.

Akbar, which also has a location in Mount Vernon, holds the westernmost spot. The other, House of India, was new to me, either because I wasn't expecting a next-door Indian restaurant or I kept missing the first parking lot and pulled into the second one (Akbar's) by default. Both are approachable only from the westbound lane of the divided parkway. If you miss them (and it's not impossible to do when traffic is moving briskly), you have to circle around and try again. Do try again.

11:55 Finding House of India wasn't a problem this time — picking our lunch items was. We debated ordering a platter from the menu, hoping to avoid sampling otherwise good food that had lost some of its luster after an hour trapped in heated serving bins. It happens. But one glance at House of India's buffet ended discussion. The glow of the rice, the smell of tikka and the sign that read "goat curry" sold us. We were seated immediately and didn't bother asking for a menu.

Two things unrelated to the menu stood out. First, the servers comported themselves with reserve and professionalism in keeping with a fine-dining setting. The white tablecloths added to a sense of formality, only just mitigated by practical paper placemats and napkins. Curious, but no problem.

Second, and what wrinkled the mood, was the booth. The back was flimsy enough to let you know whenever the person sitting in the booth behind you moved. And in this case, our neighbor was seldom still. In this setting the frequent jolts were annoying. One coping mechanism is to lean forward through most of the meal.

Otherwise, while the dining room may be confined to strip mall dimensions, it's laid out well: more intimate than cozy, with a healthy infusion of natural light from the storefront windows. They also manage to squeeze in a service bar and a host station without making the space seem at all cramped.

12:03 The distinction may be fine, but House of India has one of the more attractive buffets in these parts … or anywhere, for that matter. Everything affirmed a love of freshness and saturated color. The steam trays were full, the line table clean and well-ordered. And anchoring the corner of the L-shaped line was a massive platter piled high with chicken kebab, red onion and green pepper — a visual delight.

Salad and an array of chutneys started the line. We picked judiciously and kept portions small, planning a second trip if all went well with the first.

12:09 That the chicken kebab was displayed uncovered should have signaled that it would be cool. Otherwise it was succulent, lightly spiced and not a grill mark on it. It also happened to play nicely with the excellent cilantro chutney.

Frankly, everything from the buffet showed well and tasted just-cooked. But the goat curry alone would be enough to recommend House of India. Tender meat, no hidden bones, mildly spiced savory sauce: It could easily be mistaken for lamb. If you're stand-offish about goat because of past experience with chewy meat and sharp stealth bones, check out House of India's version.

12:22 The second round included the House's chicken tikka masala, an easy favorite. House of India's rendition will rank high among those who prefer a more assertive sauce. Easily the fieriest of the House's buffet offerings, it's robustly spiced, and the heat comes on slowly and pleasantly at the finish.

They served two rice dishes, straight white and a vegetable biryani. Their tandoori chicken's texture was soft — remarkably like a barely hard-boiled egg white, and nearly as gently flavored: I wanted a little zing to match its flaming red color.

If you appreciate the over-the-top sugary sweetness of Indian desserts, the motichoor laddoo — a bright yellow ping-pong-sized ball — is a must. Also check out the gulab's intense syrup.

12:45 We paid $12.50 apiece for our meal, a bit pricier than other Indian buffets in the region but worth it. Add this place to the growing list of finds in otherwise hole-in-the-mall strip shopping centers.

House of India

Where: 9350 Snowden River Parkway, Columbia

Contact: 410-381-3844,

Lunch hours: 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Monday-Friday

Lunch entrées: $12.95-$25.95; Buffet: $12.50

Food: ***

Service: ***

Atmosphere: ***

[Key: Outstanding: **** Good: *** Fair or Uneven: ** Poor: * Dining time: 50 minutes