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Over the $8.99 lunch buffet at the Royal Clay Oven (formerly India’s Clay Oven) on Arapahoe, British-born friend Andrew and I discussed the differences between Indian restaurants in the U.S. and U.K. He pointed out that more people in the U.K. work in subcontinental eateries than in the shipbuilding, coal mining and steel-making industries combined.

While this factoid may be a commentary on a changing manufacturing base more than anything else, it still goes to the prevalence of this cuisine abroad. As we took our seats, Andrew noted that Indian food is more of a late-night meal in the U.K., accompanied by plenty of lager. He noted that the combination of beer and fiery hot food played a unique role in the collective psyche of young British men. He explained, “It’s a bit of a macho thing.”

Clearly this news hasn’t reached Boulder, as it was early afternoon, and in the dining room, group of sober folks had gathered, presumably workers from the nearby office park. The decor here is simple and functional, with the exception of vibrant purple tablecloths fitting in with the restaurant’s regal moniker.

The lunch offerings here aren’t over-the-top spicy, although it is clear the kitchen pays attention to both preparation and service. True tandoori chicken marinates in lime juice, and it was nice to detect fresh citrusy flavor in the Clay Oven’s pleasantly moist version. Another smart touch was having the serving spoon for the texturally perfect basmati rice stored in an ice-water-filled vessel, so that old grains wouldn’t stick to it.

We were also impressed by the constant replenishment of this dish, and others, such as the curried potato-laden samosas. These selections don’t improve by sitting out on the steam table, and the quietly professional staff conscientiously refilled the pans so that latecomers wouldn’t suffer from a compromised tidbit. It might be helpful, however, to serve the naan to each table individually rather than put it in the buffet, so as to prevent this bread from drying out.

Both of us bypassed the Western-style salad bar for more traditional meatless choices. These were uniformly well-executed, particularly the saag, which didn’t go overboard on the creaminess, allowing the fresh spinach tones to shine through. Another intriguing vegetarian option was the vindi masala (a.k.a. bhindi), a spiced dish of sliced okra. These veggies tended towards crisp-tender, and were remarkably free of the sticky if not slimy texture commonly associated with this ingredient.

Another poultry preparation was the chicken tikka masala, which arguably finds its origin in the U.K. versus India itself. A continental cousin of butter chicken, this tomato cream sauce specialty capably balanced richness with a hint of tang, and the bird had a satisfying texture.

We ended with the kheer rice pudding, which wasn’t overly sweet compared to other versions, which was to its benefit. If one desires more sweetness, they can do as Andrew did, and augment it with some of the canned peaches available from the salad bar.

My only suggestion would be that the kitchen provide one or two truly spicy options, such as a pungent vindaloo, for those aficionados of heat.

Otherwise, this Royal Clay Oven dishes out low-cost yet intriguing lunches in East Boulder.

Respond: letters@boulderweekly.com

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