Dimassi's is Houston-born, with six outlets in the area and a recently hatched 4-month-old offspring here in Austin owned by Altaf Hussein and Masood Khan. It's located just east of the intersection of Spicewood Springs Road and Research, on the south side of the road. If you're heading northwest on Research, skip the traffic light, and use the turnaround lane going under the overpass. Lunch during the week is $9.99, with dinner and weekend lunch priced at $11.99; unlike most other buffets, drinks (tea, coffee, sodas) are included. You pay when you enter the door, which isn't readily apparent. This might put some folks off, but we like the idea: Pay up front, eat and drink, and waddle out when you're finished. You don't have to signal a server to get a check, and they don't have to guess when you've eaten your last bite.
Dimassi's is a buffet with Mediterranean-based food, arranged on two long, polished stone counters, one for cold items and one for hot; drinks and desserts are against the wall. There are around 18 hot dishes, eight to 10 cold dishes, and eight desserts, counting the rice pudding and three different fruits. Fresh, hot pitas appear regularly from the brick oven in back. There are more than enough options from which to choose, even for the vegetarian.
Some of the dishes seemed to stray a little east of the Mediterranean: a tandoori-style chicken, a zesty pilaf with spicing from Persia or Pakistan, a dish of spicy peas with other vegetables in a Persian-esque sauce of yogurt and tomato. Culinary origins aside, the multicultural crowd of diners seemed to like the dishes just fine.
We almost prefer the cold side, starting with a tart, crispy Lebanese salad with lots of cucumbers; a crunchy Greek salad with feta and black olives; and a minty fattoush salad (strangely missing the requisite stale bread – we added our own). The hummus and baba ghanoush suffer from a lack of enough tahini, but both are respectable, with the baba ghanoush edging a win for the smokiness of the eggplant. The tabbouleh is fine but needs more bulgur in the mix. We love the garlicky shredded cabbage salad with dry mint, and the dolmas were fine. The tzatziki sauce sorely needs more yogurt to thicken it up. A shaker of ground sumac might tart the cold section up a bit, but all-in-all, a nice representation.
In hot-food land, the food is all kept hot, and dishes that are low get refilled frequently, both requirements of a good buffet. Our favorites were the unctuous lamb shank, fall-apart tender and moist; a shredded beef brisket in tomato sauce that melted in your mouth; and the wonderful ground-beef kefta kebobs. The chicken kebobs are in a saffron-yogurt marinade, which should tenderize the meat, but they're made of breast meat, which renders them dry and tough even when straight off of the grill, never mind adding additional time on the buffet. The grilled chicken quarters have nice flavor, but the steam table defeats the crispy skin of the grill. The baked tilapia in tomato sauce with vegetables is overcooked; fish and steam tables are natural enemies. The tandoori chicken is nicely spiced and moist. The cabbage rolls never made an appearance while we were visiting, but friends have recommended the ground-beef-and-rice-stuffed treats; it's a dish that's hard to find in town.
The okra in garlicky tomato sauce is good, and the fried cauliflower is nice but needs to be fried a little bit longer to caramelize the exterior (this is great with a smear of the garlic sauce). Zucchini and golden squash are stir-fried with cilantro, lemon, and garlic and do the bland vegetables justice, while eggplant baked with pomegranate molasses is rich but lacking in much fruit flavor. The lentil soup was close to excellent, had it not been oversalted.
For starches, the seasoned potatoes are cubes of lightly seasoned potato baked until golden brown. There are three rices: plain steamed rice, spicy rice, and their version of makloube – "upside-down" eggplant-and-rice casserole – which is rich and savory. Falafel is dense and not fluffy, with the texture of a frozen hush puppy. It needs to be eaten with tabbouleh; it provides the falafel enough seasoning, while giving the tabbouleh the bulgur it so desperately needs.
Desserts are fine: The baklava is flaky and rich and not soaked in honey. Ditto for the ladyfingers, crisp with a sweet nut-meat filling. The jam cakes are tasty and flaky, but the semolina cake is too dense and sweet for my taste. Rice pudding suffered from an overdose of rose water and a shortage of sugar.
Dimassi's is a bargain when you consider the dining options it presents. With just a little bit of tweaking and polishing, it can become great. Regardless, I can make a very nice meal indeed of the salad counter and the kefta kabobs. Throw in a lamb shank, and I get giddy!
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