Two popular Indian restaurants in the Alphabet District are essentially tied in the culinary social media, so how do you choose between then? Answer: read MagoGuide. Yes, Team Mago uses a five-point scale and we even participate in the digital gastro-sphere, but we are tricksey and patient in our reviews.
Our first meal at Swagat left us feeling that it was a beneficiary of the ranking inflation that so often besets the large foodie sites. Then we used our growing Rose City HUMINT network to infiltrate Siri for an initial anonymous report. Our next step was an over-ordering binge at Siri to perform a reconnaissance of that intelligence. Again, our overall impression was that social media is too generous in its rankings for Siri as well, but not nearly as much as Swagat.
Telephone: (503) 227-4300
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Rostra rating: 2.5
Telephone: (503) 208-2259
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Rostra rating: 2
Full disclosure: As a long-time contributor to UrbanSpoon, MagoGuide transferred its allegiance to Zomato, an India-based social media food site consolidator, when it ingested UrbanSpoon last year. In general, while we still find Zomato’s rankings to be slightly over-optimistic, their reviews of food destinations are the best on the web right now. Swagat currently has a Zomato 3.4 rating, while Siri is unranked. This review will be Siri’s first on Zomato.
Our findings do not mean that you cannot get a good meal at either Swagat or Siri or that there is no difference between the two restaurants. That information, however, lies in the details of the review process and not in the inflated rankings and drive-by opinion that passes for restaurant reviews on most culinary social media platforms.
First the big picture: Restaurants that use all-you-can-eat buffets to drive their lunch traffic are often uneven during the evening when a smaller number of diners order off a much larger menu. Raves about authenticity and spices aside, Siri and Swagat are in reality two decent Indo-American restaurants that make their numbers off 1) booze (like everyone else that has a liquor license), 2) a small subset of dishes prepared daily for the buffet, and 3) everything else. If you want VFM, go to the buffet. But if you want a decent dinner off the very large menus then some foreknowledge could make or break your meal, especially given the significant jump in prices between the buffet and a al carte dishes at both establishments.
Swagat is actually an Indian restaurant and food product mini-conglomerate headquartered in California with three locations in the Portland area. It beat Siri in only three categories – décor, naan, and beer.
Swagat’s interiors have an upscale, if somewhat cookie cutteresque, Indian restaurant ambience and the outside seating at the North West Portland outpost is a real treat in nice weather. Siri sports a much more Spartan interior, despite charging a dollar more for their popular buffet lunch.
Our onion kulcha at Siri was a hideous combination of burnt black exterior and a doughy almost raw interior, while Swagat’s garlic naan was exemplary. Swagat sported six beers on tap, five of which were Oregon craft brews and the other was Kingfisher, India’s most popular lager (at least outside of India). Siri had Budweiser (gag!!) and Widmer Heffeweizen (boring).
In terms of non-naan food, however, Siri was the clear winner. Swagat’s pakoras (vegetables coated in chickpea batter and deep fried) were uniformly greasy on the outside and luke warm on the inside.
Siri’s lamb goa curry compared very favorably with Swagat’s vindaloo preparation. The lamb vindaloo was the victim of serial reheatings (probably dating back to at least one tour on the lunch buffet) that triggered a loss of coherence in terms of the meat and potato components; and while we specified that we wanted the dish with plenty of heat, we got an indifferently spiced gloppy mess. The lamb goa curry at Siri seemed to have led a much shorter and gentle life before it reached our table and it supplied multiple layers of flavor, spice, and heat. Another key difference between these two restaurants is that you really can dial in the heat at Siri, while at Swagat you basically get what you get regardless of what you tell the server.
Siri did a particularly good job with their fish tikka. Tandoori treatments can be quite dry, especially in buffet-oriented restaurants, but the cod used in this preparation came out firm and fairly juicy. The choice of cod and its careful preparation reveals both culinary skill and a sharp eye on the cost of food at Siri.
Swagat also did a mediocre job on their vegetable dishes—the source of many positive reviews on social media. Their vegetable curry of the day was another example of indistinguishable textural homogeneity combined with a mere nodding acquaintance concerning the spice palate of the sub-continent. The main ingredient in this dish was okra, but it proved soft and viscous, probably due to the use of frozen okra, significant languishing in a noontime chafing dish, or both. Over at Siri, essentially the same dish (okra masala) was obviously made with fresh okra, which is critical in terms of texture and also added to the dish’s subtle, yet still nicely spiced, flavor profile.
Siri’s eggplant bhartha’s constituents were all recognizable and differentiated in terms of texture and contribution to the dish, while the aggressive northern Indian spicing was totally on point. The basmati rice at Siri was also clearly superior to that at Swagat, which was old, dry, and crunchy.
Finally, Siri’s food was dramatically improved with the addition of mixed pickles, raita (yogurt with onions, tomatoes, cucumbers and spices), and mango chutney. You have to pay $3 a piece for these condiments but they are very good. At Swagat you get a complementary set of condiments, but it also suffered from buffet fatigue during our visit.
In the end it comes down to which restaurant did the best in terms of managing the very different demands of an all-you-can-eat lunch buffet and an a la carte dinner service. Swagat is a lunch buffet that recycles a non-trivial fraction of their entrees at dinner and treats the rest to indifferent execution in the kitchen. Siri does a better job of balancing both types of dining and serves up better VFM to boot, but you may have to endure boring beer and gnarly naan in order to partake of better Indian food.