The proximity of the University of Kentucky provides South Limestone's restaurants with a captive audience. Predictably, chains move in for their virtually risk-free piece of the action. Still, there are also family-run indies here, holes-in-the-wall that give this built-in clientele something more interesting to eat.
Punjab II — with its sweet service and a certain, sometimes unsettling, improvisational element with the dishes — is such a venue. Though some details require work, homemade almost always trumps corporate.
The best news: The lunch buffet ($7.50) seems more regularly replenished, and is generally more delicious, than the norm for Indian buffets.
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The saag paneer, lacking chunks of cheese, was essentially creamed spinach, but who doesn't love that? Pieces of smoky tandoori chicken, made with dark meat, were succulent and tender. Tangles of pakoras looked more like battered vegetables than fritters, but each bite had a flavorful crunch. Vindaloo chicken with chunky potatoes was appropriately spicy for a crowd (read: medium hot), and the chana dal, curried chickpeas, was pleasantly mild. Lovers of cream sauce will appreciate the navratan korma with vegetables. Don't miss the zesty onion chutney. Rasmali, like a soft sweet cheese ice cream, is not on the menu but is available on the buffet; it's worth a refill.
The best thing on the line, however, was the refreshing and gorgeous salad: diced green and red pepper, cucumber, chopped purple onion and fresh pears. I could eat that all day!
With such nice serendipitous offerings, the menu's gap between description and reality is unexpected, even when the items are good.
Starters of lamb-stuffed samosas ($2.99) and crisp pappadams were dependable, but the special thali (a sampler platter for $15.25) promised saag shrimp yet delivered lamb. The shrimp curry more resembled a seafood broth or a sambar. Everyone except me seems to like the rich sauce in chicken tikka masala, but local versions come too close to cream of tomato soup. The dahl makhni was made of curried yellow, rather than black, lentils. A generous portion of vegetable biryani ($8.99) had lots of broccoli, carrots and peas in the yellow rice, but few cashews and golden raisins. The chicken chili ($9.99) included slices of green bell peppers rather than chili peppers, dashing my fantasy of a spicy entree.
To be fair, none of these individual variations are bad, but most of us want exactly the dishes we have chosen based on the menu's descriptions.
So here is my main suggestion to the good folks at Punjab II, who we all want to succeed: Maintain the great buffet, but hone those menu offerings. Remember, South Limestone's quest for diversity needs you.
An average meal for two would be about $25.