Smile Politely

Ambar India is a gem in the heart of campus

Ever since my first taste of food from Ambar India I’ve been obsessed. I’ve tried many of their dishes and have yet to be disappointed. Once I discovered that there was a place to get fresh delicious Indian food in Champaign within delivery distance, I knew I was in trouble. Delivery was satisfying for a while, but the foodie in me began to wonder what the actual restaurant experience was like. It was time to pay Ambar India a visit, and I’m glad I did.

I don’t know about you, but I rarely go on campus unless it’s to eat. I recently braved the pedestrian traffic for the sake of an excellent meal. I easily found my destination and used my MobileMeter app to park — love that app! I entered the restaurant and seated myself at a small table by the windows. The natural light helps you to experience the true beauty of the food, especially through the camera lens. My server swiftly brought me a menu while I began to glimpse at the selection of meals and the atmosphere around us. The restaurant is small and modest. The walls are painted a bold brick red and the matching chairs and tables are made of dark wood. When 6 p.m. hit, the restaurant began to come alive with a diverse mixture of diners. Some were studying solo, while some took advantage of the centrally located long table to meet up with large groups of friends. Hipsters, preppies, business men and women, locals: they were all there. The mom and pop restaurant vibe oozes from every inch of the place.

One of the dining room features that caught my eye was the beautiful buffet that brightly lit up the corner. It is served daily and the menu is always changing. (You can find the daily buffet menu on the restaurant’s Facebook page.) It includes a salad bar, freshly made soups, chicken wings, veggie dishes, fish dishes, chicken dishes, naan, rice and dessert. I was tempted by the kaleidoscope of colors and the savory smells, but today I was here to eat a plated meal.

I felt excited to see the presentation of the food since I had only seen it served in a plastic take out container. I was delighted to discover that the meals are served in beautiful brass dishes. I began with vegetarian dish called Mutter Paneer ($8.99), a dish made with homemade cheese and a tomato based gravy with peas and garam masala. Garam masala is a house-made mixture of warming spices. The dishes are served with a choice of plain naan or rice. The paneer is made fresh at the restaurant. It was moist, and had soaked up all of the rich creamy gravy. The gravy was luscious and had a touch of sweetness. The peas added a beautiful pop of green to the dish and were cooked perfectly.

I also ordered Butter Chicken or Chicken Makhani ($9.99). Makhani gravy is used for many Punjabi dishes. It is a tomato based gravy made with butter and cream. This dish is rich, bold and decadant. The tandoori grilled chicken was very tender. The lavishness of the cream along with the bright tomato flavor, paired with the warm turmeric and other spices was truly an exquisite moment for my palate. I recommend ripping off a piece of naan bread and dipping it into the sauce for the ultimate experience. I found the flavors in both of the dishes to be addictive. I kept eating even after my brain was telling me to slow down. To go along with the meal, I ordered a warm chai tea ($1.99) with milk. It was creamy and had a pleasant, sweet earthy flavor.

Once I had eaten my fill, and then some, I asked our server about the food they create at Ambar India. He proudly explained to me, that they make the paneer fresh, all of the desserts are freshly made in addition to making fresh yogurt and and naan bread, all in house. I could tell by the look of pride on his face, and the flavors of the dishes, that they put their heart and soul into preparing the food. As the server turned to head back to the kitchen, he suddenly stopped and turned around with a glimmer in his eye. He told me that they had just made a batch of fresh rice kheer ($2.99), and he would like to share some with me. I was overjoyed by his friendliness and hospitality. I had never tried Indian style rice pudding before, let alone freshly made rice pudding. He brought out the piping hot pudding and enthusiastically presented it before me. It was thick with just the right amount of sweetness and the rice was cooked well. What an outstanding way to conclude this impressive meal.

Ambar India is a brilliant gem hidden in the heart of campus that will not disappoint. The food is a rainbow of bright colors and robust flavors. I found the atmosphere friendly, and the consistently delicious food has won them a crowd of loyal local customers, including me. If you’re craving homemade Indian food that’s fresh, beautiful and delicious, look no further.

On my next visit I will definitely be diving into that stunning buffet. I just can’t seem to stay away!

Ambar India is located at 605 S Wright St, Champaign, and is open Monday though Sunday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. The buffet is served daily.

All photos by Rebecca Wells.

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