CAFE ZUM ZUM Beautiful food, casual worldliness. Annie Marie Musselman
Cafe Zum Zum

823 Third Ave, Suite 104, 622-7391. Mon-Fri 11 am-3 pm.

So many foods do so badly in the buffet-lunch lineup: salads wilt under sneezeguards, pasta congeals under heat lamps, sandwiches grow soggy inside plastic wrap. But now that I've found a cuisine that actually becomes better the longer it sits, I feel I should support it wholeheartedly. The stews of the Indian subcontinent and the Middle East are such foods, which is why the lowliest Indian/ Middle Eastern buffet is often okay or better: The flavors in curries and dhals meld and intensify with time, and as long as the foods are kept hot, you can have a surprisingly satisfying fast-food lunch.

Recently I had lunch at Cafe Zum Zum, and it made me want to faint with happiness. Their curries are lovely, long-simmered concoctions; with this technique, spinach (which graces many of them) becomes a condiment rather than a vegetable--silky, melting, deep, nearly smoky. The lamb in the lamb-spinach curry ($5.59) is cooked into dreamy compliance, which is to say it's unbelievably tender, but also spicy and infused with the flavors it's been fraternizing with.

Some people, to be sure, don't like long-stewed curries, and many of them (I've found) are vegetarians. If you want crisp, al dente vegetables, this is not the cuisine for you. It is soft to the max, and as homey as anything we call comfort food (although there are excellent vegetarian curries, including a potato-spinach curry, $4.59, and a split garbanzo curry, $4.59, that's like an Indian dhal--only the garbanzos hold their shape for a little textural interest). Zum Zum's open sandwich--called, for some reason I could not discover, a donné (perhaps because a sandwich without a lid is like a gift?)-- is that delicious curry ($4.99 for the lamb variety) spooned over a piece of puffy round bread, not unlike good Greek pita, and served with pungent green sauce.

The cross-cultural bread confusion extends to Zum Zum's naan, which is more like a chapati--or even a tortilla--than the traditional soft-yet-crisp, misshapen bread cooked on the side of a tandoor. A small disappointment, but the rice makes up for it. It must have been cooked in some kind of broth, since it's salty and slightly buttery; a sense of butter, in fact, is all over the meal, which gives it a certain luxuriousness. (Certain killjoys might call that quality "greasy"; certainly they are people who have made a virtue out of austerity.)

Zum Zum is situated in a low-key downtown food court--boasting not the competitive bustle and overstimulation of the food court at, for example, Southcenter Mall, but the simplicity of a handful of restaurants clustered around a little courtyard. Downtown is so lively at lunchtime; it only makes the mass exodus and empty streets at night all the more creepy and sad. I ate my lunch while listening to Punjabi bhangra music and listening to a group of well-meaning ladies plot to raise money for a park. I watched a young man in a suit with a hat and wondered what he did for a living. (The suit says "stockbroker"; the hat says "city desk.") Someone was eating Pakistani curries with chopsticks.

The upshot is that Zum Zum makes Seattle feel like a big city, but doesn't make a big deal about it. It's the combination of various cultures asserting themselves, downtown bustle, strangers having to sit in close proximity to each other, and (most importantly) beautiful food in an undistinguished setting. Part of its casual worldliness might be historical: The restaurant bills itself as both Indian and Pakistani, which on the world map of foods pretty much means it serves a mix of regional Indian dishes. Pakistan, after all, is a fairly young country, conceived by fiat in the middle of the last century and formed in a bloody process called Partition, in which Muslims were herded into a northern province of India.

Of course, at this particular week in history, it seems rather cold to be assessing the movement of food culture through a country mapped by war; sometimes you should just shut up and eat.