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Comfort on Curry Row

by B.A. Nilsson on December 21, 2011

Jewel of India, 187 Lark St., Albany, 512-5600, jewelonlark.com. Serving dinner 11-11 daily, lunch buffet 11-3 daily. AE, D, MC, V.

Cuisine: Indian

Entrée price range: $8 (chana dal masala, many others) to $15 (tandoor salmon)

Ambiance: pleasant but shopworn

Thirty years ago there was one, called the Maharajah, not far from what’s now Mohawk Commons on Schenectady’s State Street. An internal rift caused much of the staff to open a restaurant closer to Albany: Sitar, which remains the granddaddy of local Indian eateries. Twenty-five years ago, I was lamenting the paucity of this cuisine locally; now, we have no cause for complaint.

There’s a kinship among Chinese, Mexican, Indian and even many Italian restaurants, in which a tried-and-true menu is featured and the decor and style of service run to a pattern. It’s the local-ness that counts most, and such places are vital to a neighborhood. Jewel of India, on the first block in from Washington Avenue on Albany’s Lark Street, is in what might be developing as our own Curry Row, a name given to Manhattan’s East 6th Street. It’s an easy walk from Gandhi and Lazeez, both on Central, but you’d have to be more of a veteran of day-to-day dining in the neighborhood than I am to detail the differences.

They all offer inexpensive lunch buffets; the dinner menus similarly concentrate on the Punjabi core of Indian fare, with the former Indian areas of Pakistan and Bangladesh variously represented. It’s not about elegant dining, which is reflected in the pricing. Entrées cost half of what you’d pay in a fancy place. Jewel of India’s dining area has the unfussy look of a cafeteria that dressed for an event and kept it that way, with nice-looking tables on a threadbare carpet and a scattering of artwork on the walls. Some refurbishment would help; failing that, they could turn down the very bright lights.

Also on hand: a pair of TV screens to keep you distracted, only one of which (fortunately!) was operating the evening my family and I visited, although to sit so that I wasn’t assaulted by the thing meant that I had to watch my wife and daughter become transfixed to oblivion by the Bollywood-sourced music videos that silently played and played.

Indian fare can be benevolently vegetarian, and Jewel of India calls attention to that with some two dozen meatless entrées, most listed in their own menu section—and priced below $10. My daughter ordered “mixed savzi” ($9), the keyword more commonly transliterated as “sabzi,” meaning—well, pretty much vegetables, in this case an array of zucchini, broccoli, green pepper, carrots, lima beans, string beans—a mix of fresh and frozen, in a dark sauce flavored with tomatoes and ginger. Savzi soup ($3) is rich with puréed lentils and boasts a good presence of cilantro, which always livens such a dish for me. The seasoning leaned too far to the salty, however, to make it an entirely enjoyable dish.

Tandoor ovens—thick cylinders of clay—evenly distribute a fierce heat, and are responsible not only for excellent grilled meats but also a number of breads. Which is why we never pass up on naan. Here it’s $2 at its simplest, and rises to as much as $4 when you add such items as cheese, spinach, jalapeno peppers, garlic and more. For me, it’s a sauce vehicle, so I keep it simple. Another sauce vehicle is papadum ($2), the crisp lentil wafers served with a trio of chutneys—tamarind, onion and mint—and also available as part of the mixed appetizer platter ($5). Good price for the mixed, which featured a potato-and-peas-stuffed samosa, a seasoned ground meat-stuffed samosa and a couple of varieties of pakora, the deep-fried, chick pea flour-battered snacks with meat or veggies inside.

In a shocking development, my wife contemplated ordering a non-chicken dish before returning to her senses and opting for morag mushroom ($11). Morag (or murgh) is chicken; I’m guessing “mushroom” is a word that’s just fine as it is. In any event, the dish was tasty but unremarkable, more notable in that my wife initially shied away from it because, she explained, she doesn’t care for Marsala, until I directed her aging peepers to the menu again, revealing the word to be “masala,” a mixture of spices.

We were asked as we ordered what heat intensity we’d prefer—regular, mild or hot—and each of us chose a different intensity. When the entrées were served, I couldn’t tell the difference. But my lamb biryani ($12) had at least a flavor intensity that suited the tender meat chunks well. I look for a greater array of accompanying vegetables, but otherwise have no complaint. Biryani is a lengthy, complex preparation of rice that ramps up the flavor and draws from any meat that’s featured. Other components include shrimp ($12), chicken ($10) and goat ($14).

The menu offers still more in the way of lamb and chicken dishes, seafood items and a couple more takes on goat, all of it priced very reasonably. Which to me is a major appeal of this restaurant. Service was polite but, as we had only one server working both phone (they do a take-out business) and floor, kitchen and customers were easily (though not uncomfortably) neglected. All in all, a fine addition to our own Curry Row, and here’s hoping that competition drives the stakes higher and keeps the prices low.