Five years is a ripe old age for a restaurant, many of which don't survive to see their first birthday. So the fifth-anniversary buffet thrown a few weeks back by Shiva, the slightly quirky Indian restaurant in the Rice Village, qualified as a festive occasion. Twenty bucks bought regulars and friends a whack at more dishes than even I (loath as I am to admit it) could sample at one sitting, including some prime examples of the lavishly stuffed-and-layered dishes that set this restaurant apart from its peers, as anyone who's tried Shiva's cheese-and-nut-filled potato can attest.
One of those creations was a leg of lamb filled with an opulent mosaic of nuts, raisins and the soft, homemade Indian cheese called paneer; it's the kind of costly, time-consuming dish that Shiva owner Ricky Oberoi usually reserves for the big, kick-out-the-jams Indian wedding feasts he caters. Maybe he'll offer it occasionally as part of his Sunday buffet, he mused the night of his party; then he shook his head ruefully, as if the cost of preparing the dish was giving him pause. I helped myself to another slice.
I would have had two of the tennis-ball-size potato croquettes stuffed with unexpectedly tender chicken, too, but I had to pace myself -- which didn't prevent me from mopping up every drop of their tart, spicy tomato sauce with a layery piece of naan. (At least I have a prayer of encountering this dish again, because sometimes Oberoi puts it on special.) There were meat-stuffed green peppers that resembled an exotic form of baby food, and a pale tandoori chicken variant that was (as buffet tandoori tends to be) overly dry. There were curries and vegetables galore, and if they were not always seasoned as assertively as they are in some Indian restaurants, neither were they afflicted by the oversalting to which Indian restaurants are prone. No small achievement.
Good, straightforward lentils got more interesting when scooped up with a puffy wedge of sun-dried tomato naan -- one of the latter-day notions Oberoi cooks up "when they let me loose in the kitchen." The creamed-spinach saag paneer may have been on the polite and soupy side, but its Indian cheese was irreproachable: fresh and spongy. A dry-saute of cauliflower came off well. And the cold buffet was an unusual treat, with its cilantro-spiked cucumbers, its herbed tomatoes and its tamarind-flavored potato salad (the ineffable aloo chaat). A fruity, immediate-tasting mango vinaigrette turned iceberg lettuce into an engaging salad with an old-fashioned wilted texture. And a hill of crisp bean sprouts in an elusive red-wine dressing was like nothing I've ever tasted -- understated, almost austere, with a cilantro garnish that made the salad pop into focus. (Many of these dishes are available on Shiva's Sunday buffet, which has a different menu every week.)
Oberoi's parents, who used to own the well-regarded Natraj, came and went in the lavender-washed dining rooms, offering glasses of hot, milky tea and pointing out various features of the buffet, which was presided over by a highly embellished palanquin bearing a stuffed teddy bear. Oberoi touted his menu's new chili chicken dish, promising a fiery heat level. ("It's a real sinus-buster," he said happily.) I took it upon myself to consume one last dose of his multidimensional green chutney -- a substance that always manages to make me feel glad to be alive. In this rounded, deep incarnation, with its tantalizing hint of sweet-sourness, the green stuff did its magic again.
-- Alison Cook
Shiva, 2514 Times Boulevard, 523-4753.
Shiva: Sunday buffet, $7.50.