After a long cold winter (well, January and February at least) of struggling to summon the ambition to venture out for any reason, let alone for India Buffet, we finally made a date to check out our next stop on the tour, Coriander India Grill in Squirrel Hill. It was a day only a Pittsburgher could love, 50′s and drizzling, it even inspired two guest critics to come along for the ride: Nik, an India Buffet aficionado and Millvillian, and Jay, an Asian food enthusiast and Squirrel Hill denizen.
Coriander Grill is exactly what you would expect, in terms of decor, and then some. The outside and inside plaster wall surfaces are smothered in a lime green color (perhaps “cilantro green” would be more appropriate), which is, perhaps, overkill, but the booths were clean and comfortable, and water served in heavy faux-cut crystal goblets. The lunch buffet at Coriander is offered every day, and a dinner buffet is served on Tuesday and Sunday evenings. The cost is reasonable, being $7.99 during the week, and jumping only to $8.55 on the weekends.
Taking in the scope of the buffet, it became apparent that Coriander’s offerings were more extensive than most, but not quite so gargantuan as the buffet at Taj Mahal. The salad/dessert bar section had a wide variety of chutneys and pickles, including the expected tamarind and mint, as well as the not terribly common coconut. Rice and naan provided the standard starches. Onion pakoras proved to be a crispy appetizer. The meat selections were just as standard as the starch: chicken curry, tandoori chicken, chicken tikka masala. The vegetarian selection, though, came as a pleasant surprise in its extensiveness. There was mattar paneer, chana saag, an inviting dal, vegetable korma, spiced mixed vegetables and cauliflower. The highlight of of the curry selection was a dish off to the side of red chili paste, very useful for raising the heat level on mild buffet offerings.
As we dove into our teeming plates of buffet gleanings, we quickly reached a consensus that the taste quality of coriander’s food was a cut above. There was something intriguing about the taste of each dish. Flavors bespoke fresh ingredients and well-tuned spice mixes. So often buffets rely on over-salting to lend taste to food that does not arrive immediately at the table, but in every dish at Coriander, the salt flavor was low and the spices rang at a good pitch. The pakoras were crispy, but the coconut chutney, while tasty, was uninspired. The saag was one of my favorites, as I am a particular fan of saag, and Nik agreed that it exceeded ordinary Indian restaurant saag. The spinach was still quite green, not too dark and overcooked. The chicken tikka masala was definitely a few flavor levels above typical, a danger that faces any buffet vat of tikka masala since it is practically a requirement. I was even impressed by the mattar paneer, which I didn’t get until my second trip, since mattar paneer is among of my least favorite curries. Sabrina detected a pleasantly sour whisper of vinegar in many dishes, and happily attributed it to the Goan influence that she has noticed on the regular menu, as she frequents Coriander for non-buffet dinner. The dal was a favorite among all the guests at our table, and everyone agreed its appeal lay in its likeness to an Indian-style chili.
The biggest controversy of the day came from the vegetable korma. I enjoyed the flavor of this dish and I was happy to taste a highlight spice—my guess was cardamom—which set it apart in good contrast to the other dishes. However, the korma did suffer one pitfall; it’s a common danger that plagues the preparation of korma, that because of the nut pastes used in its preparation the curry sauce dries out easily, and so water or milk must be added frequently as long as it stews over the fire. Sabrina and Jay agreed that the flavor of the korma sauce was not enough to outweigh their distaste at the pudding-like consistency.
After eating, the table discussed our selections; Sabrina and I compared the experience to our previous buffet stops and we solicited the input of our fellow lunchers that day. Coriander got points for variety, being larger than any other buffet we visited, save the Taj Mahal (what is the appeal of the buffet, after all, if not to sample a plethora of dishes), but it also got points for taste quality. We easily agreed that the flavor of Coriander’s food was second only to the buffet at Tamarind. In the end, we decided that taste trumps size, and so we placed Coriander second to Tamarind in the scheme of buffets we’ve visited so far.