It had been a long time since we last visited Gokul, the vegetarian Indian restaurant on Page Avenue, but we stopped at the enlarged Seema Enterprises recently to pick up some Indian groceries (fresh kari leaves!), and found an excuse and a freshly whetted appetite to stop for lunch next door.
No longer just a sweet shop with some carry-out, daily lunch and dinner buffets are now the rule at Gokul, although there's a menu as well, and we intend to come back and try some of the dishes-- stuffed and deep fried banana peppers in a garam flour? An okra curry with tomatoes and onions? And all kinds of variations on the Indian snacks like bhel puri and chaat.
Indian food, as we've repeatedly pointed out, generally stands up to the steamy heat of buffet service far better than Chinese (or fried chicken and fish for that matter),and while it's rough on will power, it's also ideal for nibbling here and there. Gokul's buffet items are mostly labeled, although many are not translated. Knowing that channa are chickpeas and saag is spinach helps a little. We got a polite inquiry from an employee asking if we'd like any help, and got a brief description of the layout.
Basically, there's a cold table and a hot steam table. The latter holds rice, curries, dals and some bread. The cold table, however, is where different things pop up, all of them worth trying. And since it's a buffet, with unlimited service, take a wee portion, and if it strikes the proper chord, go back for more.
One of the traditional Indian street foods is a snack called bhel poori. It begins with something crunchy like puffed rice, or crispy little noodles made with chickpea flour, or pieces of poori bread made crisp, or a combination of these, mixed with cold vegetable pieces and then topped with one or several chutneys. Eaten immediately before the crispy bits sog up, there are plenty of variations in its homeland. But we hadn't seen it in St. Louis until now. We started our plates with a layer of the crisp pieces of bread, topped it with the chopped mixed vegetables, things like potato and chickpeas , and then added a little of each of the chutneys. Two of them were familiar to anyone who's eaten pappadum, those lentil wafers that often kick off Indian dinners. There was dark brown tamarind chutney, with its sweet-tart notes, and cilantro chutney, green and pungent. Another was raita, the yogurt that's seasoned with cumin and mixed with a little cucumber and onion. But the fourth was new to us, a coconut chutney so thick it looked like heavy cream, moon-pale but with a few dried red chiles swimming in the mixture.
The result of mixing these components is an Indian festival of crisp, crunchy, and smooth, cool temperatures and flavors that range from sweet to hot, all dancing around the mouth. Some of us could make a meal of just this. Also on the table are golf-ball-sized pooris, deep-fried until they puff up. Traditionally, these are filled with a bit of the desired combination of solids and chutneys and eaten in one bite.
On the hot side, we particularly enjoyed the malai kofta, a vegetable meatball that was nicely tender, rather like a falafel in a creamy sauce. An eggplant curry, different from some of those we've had in the past, featured large chunks of eggplant. Channa saag, spinach and chickpeas managed to be both spicy-hot and sweet at the same time, although the heat was hardly overwhelming. (In fact, nothing we tried was anywhere near killer-hot, but the flavors were so complex, we didn't miss the heat at all.) Dal, the lentil dish also was a charmer. The lentils, by the way, are orange, but they cook up golden yellow.
For dessert, there's fruit, little of it remarkable at this time of year, some mango kulfi, the ice-cream like dish, that's more sweet than mango-flavored, and ras malai, doughnut holes in a warm syrup that are sweet, tender and totally irresistible. That's what we went for.
We suspect that the kulfi suffered in comparison to a mango lassi we ordered. The yogurt-fruit drink, an ancestor of the smoothie, was deeply mango-flavored, a wonderful ruddy orange, and nicely tart.
All this for $7.99 weekday lunches, $9.99 evenings and weekend lunches. Worthwhile, very worthwhile.
Gokul offers lots of carryout, and do tiffin, or lunch special carryouts (although minus the classic tiffin containers), and there are vegan buffets the first and third Monday nights of each month.
10633 Page Ave., Overland
Lunch and Dinner daily
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: Fair