Here's a good way to spice up your lunch hour, sample some exotic dishes and eat until you can't go on: Ladle your way through an Indian buffet.
It's your call at these gently priced spreads. Stick with something tried and true, such as chicken tandoori, or get adventurous and go for the curried goat or bhindi masala (spicy, creamy okra). The buffet table holds condiments in colorful profusion, as well as soup, salad and basmati rice. Freshly baked flat bread -- nan or some variation -- is often delivered to your table, warm and glistening. To conclude, there's something sweet, like gulab jaman (honey balls) or rice pudding.
But wait. Before you lift the lid off that first dish, it's best to have an idea of how to navigate the territory ahead. Here are some tips:
1. The optimal time to hit the buffet table is around 12:30 p.m., the height of lunch hour. True, the place may be crowded, but the kitchen will be humming.
2. To learn what your favorites are, go around the table once and take tiny samples. Then, return and load up. Go for the dishes most recently replenished. And if something you want is nearly depleted, it's OK to ask a waiter to bring out more.
3. Ask the crew to describe dishes you're unfamiliar with; most are happy to introduce you to their cuisine.
4. Keep expectations realistic. When you're spending $9 to $13 for massive quantities of food, you're not going to experience a restaurant's tip-top capability.
5. As with most buffets, there are no doggy bags.
WHAT YOU'RE EATING
Here are some terms to help you navigate your way through an Indian buffet:
Nan -- a yeast-leavened bread, usually baked in a clay tandoor oven
Chapati -- an unleavened whole- grain bread, cooked on a griddle
Tandoori chicken -- chicken marinated with yogurt and spices, cooked in a clay tandoor oven
Chicken tikka -- small pieces of boneless chicken, marinated and cooked in a tandoor oven
Chicken tikka masala -- chicken tikka served in a creamy, spicy tomato-based sauce
Chicken makhani -- also known as butter chicken; chicken -- usually dark meat -- cooked in a creamy butter and tomato sauce
Chaat -- a street snack of potatoes and chickpeas with crispy bread, sauces and spices
Dal -- cooked spiced lentils
Idli -- a savory steamed "doughnut" made with a batter of lentils and rice
Dosa -- a fermented rice and (sometimes) lentil pancake, filled with a spiced vegetable mix, usually including potatoes
Uttapam -- a thicker baked version of a dosa, with filling incorporated into the batter
Palak paneer or saga paneer -- a curried spinach dish with fried cubes of cheese
Navratan korma -- a mix of vegetables and nuts in a creamy coconut sauce
Sambar -- a vegetable soup or stew, often served with dosas
WHERE TO EAT
These six Indian buffets represent a cross-section of what's out here on Long Island.
ROYAL BUKHARA GRILL, Hicksville
THE TAB Monday to Friday, noon to 3 p.m., $7.99, Saturday and Sunday, $9.99
THE TABLE At this light-filled Indian spot, the buffet showcases about 20 dishes. A highlight is a table with the makings of chaat, a street snack of potatoes and chickpeas with crispy bread, sauces and spices, to be put together to taste. Other popular items include a supremely juicy, smoky tandoori chicken, chicken makhani (in a creamy tomato-butter sauce), as well as vegetarian palak paneer (curried spinach with fried cheese). Your choice of bread (garlic nan, plain nan or onion roti) is brought to the table.
CHENNAI DOSAS, Hicksville
THE TAB $8.95 Monday to Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.; $9.95 Saturday and Sunday, 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.
THE TABLE Even carnivores will appreciate the bright, confidently spiced assortment at this South Indian vegetarian restaurant, whose sign still reads "Dosa Diner." Standouts include light, fluffy idli (steamed doughnuts) as well as made-to-order dosas (potato-filled rice-lentil pancakes), chapati (wheat bread) and the airy-foamy uttapam (dosa batter with filling baked inside); for a real kick, get yours with onions, chilies and peas.
THE TAB $11.95, daily, noon to 3 p.m.; price includes a soft drink
THE TABLE This elegant little Indian-Chinese spot within a catering hall offers one of the area's most vibrant buffets. In the daily changing assortment of about 12 dishes, it's a good bet you'll find chicken tandoori and an amazingly tender white meat chicken tikka (marinated grilled chicken pieces), as well as a great goat curry. Among vegetarian choices, there's usually saag paneer (creamed spiced spinach with fried cheese). One afternoon, an okra dish excelled. Nan is delivered to your table.
KIRAN PALACE, Commack
6092 Jericho Tpke., Commack
THE TAB Monday to Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., $9.95; Saturday and Sunday, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., $10.95
THE TABLE This strip-mall eatery serves an assortment of vegetarian and nonvegetarian dishes out of pretty copper kettles. Standards include chicken tikka masala, tandoori chicken and dal (lentils), along with gulab jaman (honey balls) for dessert. Nan is brought to your table.
RAGA, East Setauket
THE TAB Tuesday to Sunday, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., $9.99; closed Monday
THE TABLE At this attractive Indian spot, the buffet assortment changes daily but usually includes chicken tikka masala (tandoor-roasted boneless chicken pieces in a spicy, creamy sauce), as well as a juicy mixed (white- and dark-meat chicken) malai kebab (tandoor-grilled marinated chicken). Vegetarian standards include dum aloo Kashmiri (potato with onion, peppers, tomato and cream), saag paneer and yellow dal (lentils). Nan is brought to the table.
THE CURRY CLUB , East Setauket
THE TAB Monday to Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., $ 10.99; Saturday and Sunday, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., $12.99
THE TABLE A hungry lunch crowd from the nearby university and hospital keeps this gracious spot hopping. On the buffet, you'll usually see chicken tikka masala, tandoori chicken and rice. Although there's nan on the table, you can request yours made to order. A star among the vegetarian offerings is the fluffy malai kofta, mixed vegetable balls in a creamy coconut sauce.