The world’s first “all-you-can-eat” meals may have started in India, where an ancient culinary tradition called thali still holds sway. Originally these were vegetarian affairs served in south India, but today non-vegetarian thalis are found all over India.
The idea is simple. The diner sits at a communal table with a metal tray called a thali, which passing waiters constantly refill with delicacies. It is considered impolite to be moderate at these meals, and getting the waiters to stop filling your tray is a task all unto itself. Most people are begging for mercy by the time they are full.
While the Sunday brunch at the Royal Khyber of Newport Beach is not a thali but a self-service buffet in the grand American manner, it follows in the same tradition. You will still find it difficult to stop eating. The food is just too tempting.
The cuisine at Royal Khyber is the type that most Westerners know as Indian cuisine--namely, the Mughlai cuisine of north India. It is rich, mildly spiced food with an emphasis on broiled meats, steamy breads, thick sauces and stewed vegetables. It is a cooking style almost as European as it is Asian, and one that appeals to a broad range of tastes. I happen to love it.
The restaurant is a mock version of a Mughlai palace: Cracks called jalli let the air in, just as they do in maharajahs’ palaces all over India; Mughlai woodcuts are carved into some walls, others appear to be made of white marble and there is a luxuriously tiled floor. A burbling fountain in the center of the buffet does little to mute the sitar and tabla music playing in the background. Adding to this richness are shawanas, individual silk curtains that can make your meal private and exotic if you like.
Brunch here is a perfect way to sample much of the regular menu--about 20 dishes are served. First on the buffet are raw vegetables--carrot, zucchini, broccoli, jicama, tomato and cucumber--eaten with raita , a thickened yogurt dish. Proceed to the chutneys: spicy mint, sweet-and-sour tamarind and fiery carrot pickle. Load up with tomato relish and you’re ready for the tandoori station.
Since clay tandoor ovens reach temperatures of more than 800 degrees, Royal Khyber’s chicken is always hot and juicy and crusted with spices that crumble off the meat. It is just like preparations I’ve had in India, not bright-red with food coloring as you find in many local Indian restaurants.
There is lamb tikka (skewered chunks of lamb roasted in the tandoor ), shami kabab (little patties of minced lamb) and tandoori fish as well. When seated, you can order naan , the flat bread baked in the tandoor . It’s an irresistible combination.
That doesn’t even begin to exhaust the appetizers. There are vadai (puffy little lentil fritters), aloo chat (crunchy potato patties) and bhel puri (a crunchy snack that is a favorite on Bombay’s Chowpatty beach). If you want, you can even order masala dosa (long lentil pancakes stuffed with spicy potato) from the kitchen.
The best of the main dishes is biryani , the simple basmati rice dish with peas and fried onions. The rice is soft and fragrant with saffron. Next best is saag lamb from the menu, a Kashmiri dish of stewed, braised lamb with spinach gravy. The dish is amazingly filling.
With the exception of channa masala , the spicy curried chickpea dish, most other dishes on the buffet are not available on the dinner menu. There is a mild chicken curry, for example, and a creamy vegetable curry consisting of peas, carrots and potatoes. Lastly there is an excellent onion, tomato and bell pepper dish that must be a creation of the chef.
Dessert is a carrot-almond pudding with a dash of rose water, but if you request it the waiter might bring you something from the kitchen. I asked for gulab jamun , the little balls of milk and honey served in a thick syrup, and they were brought without much fuss. Finish up with masala tea, an aromatic spiced tea with milk; you have to pay extra but it’s worth it.
Royal Khyber is moderately priced, with a large, extensive dinner menu. The Sunday champagne brunch is $12.95. Prices on the dinner menu are as follows: Appetizers, $2.95 to $5.95; tandoori dishes, $7.95 to $13.95; entrees, $8.95 to $9.95; vegetables, $5.50 to $6.95.
1000 N. Bristol St., Newport Beach
Open for lunch Monday-Friday; nightly for dinner and brunch on Sunday.
All major credit cards accepted.