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photo:Shannon DeCelle

The Other India
By B.A. Nilsson

Karavalli

9B Johnson Road (Route 9R), Latham, 785-7600. Serving lunch Mon-Fri 11:30-2:30, dinner Sun-Thu 5-10, Fri-Sat 5-11, brunch Sat-Sun noon-2. AE, MC, V.

Cuisine: Indian assortment

Entrée price range: $10 (dal makhanni) to $24 (tandoor grilled rack of lamb)

Ambiance: pleasantly disguised strip-mall room

 

I try to keep an eye on what the other area food writers write about, especially if I’m worried about getting scooped on a new restaurant. And, dammit, Bill Dowd got to Karavalli first and wrote about it in the Aug. 7 issue of the Times Union. Not only that: He lavished upon it a rare encomium.

Determined to disagree, I visited recently with my hypercritical family of Indian cuisine fanatics. After besting the challenge of finding the place—it’s in a strip mall on the lower end of Route 9R, not far from the intersection with Route 9—we parked amid a sea of SUVs (it’s Latham, after all).

But something changed as we approached the restaurant. The doorway is outlined by an exotic wood carving, and the door itself was held open for us by the hostess as we entered. They want to be a little different; they want to be hospitable.

Let me get this out of the way first. Bill was right. This is the best Indian restaurant in the Capital Region. And not just because of the unusual variety of food the menu offers, but also by the superior preparation and presentation of even the most familiar dishes.

Open but seven months, Karavalli is still in the honeymoon phase, which, for an Indian restaurant, means they start you off with a complimentary basket of peppery papadum, a crisp lentil wafer that serves as an excellent delivery vehicle for the chutneys (onion and mint) served with it.

The friendly service, the spicy starter—they’re great distractions from the unalterable fact that you’re dining in a box, albeit a box that’s been tastefully painted (in contrasting shades of blue) and hung with appealing Indian artwork and tapestries.

As you study the menu, as you inhale that robust mix of dry-roasted cumin and cloves that wafts from the kitchen, you’ll see plates emerge over the ends of which an oversized, rolled pancake extends. That’s dosai, a signature dish at Karavalli. It’s from southern India (where you’ll also find the coastal Karavalli region), and marks a departure from the northern-Indian-intensive cuisine typical of most other such area restaurants.

Dosai is an enormous, whisper-light lentil-and-rice confection that has a more subtle flavor than papadum and therefore accommodates a wider range of accompaniments. An aromatic potato mixture characterizes the masala dosai ($7), which is also served with a side of dal and some dipping sauces.

Another appetizer approach is the sampler plate ($10), which gives you a taste of chicken tikka (otherwise available only as a $14 entrée), fresh from the tandoor oven, along with tasty morsels of ground lamb kebab, grilled chicken wings, a deep-fried, veggie-stuffed somosa patty and some crisp vegetable fritters. And an order of nan, the unleavened, tandoor-cooked bread.

But be careful. That sampler and a dosai are a meal for two, and you don’t want to miss a shot at the various entrées. Owner Sunil Kayalchirayil, who also co-owns a restaurant in Lee, Mass., explains that he and many of his associates in the restaurant are from southern India, and they reasoned that it was about time that area had more than merely Punjabi food.

Thus the chemmeen pappas ($17), from the southeastern Kerala area, in which shrimp are tossed with coconut, chilis and coriander, and avial malabar ($12), a vegetarian dish with bananas, tams, beans and more in a coconut-yogurt sauce.

My wife practically pounced on the exotic-sounding lasoni gobi ($12), a unique concoction of deep-fried, garlicky cauliflower florets served with a sweet and sour sauce. My daughter, meanwhile, as she approaches the age of 9, paid me the highest compliment: “You pick something for me.”

I came up with a winner. Coconut chicken ($14, also from Kerala) features a tricky blend of spices dominated by chili peppers and mustard sweetened to a delicious finish by coconut milk, reminiscent of a Thai curry.

While I don’t (honest!) pursue spiciness for its own sake, a sauce called phal, noted on the menu as even spicier than a vindaloo, called to me. With chicken it’s $14, $17 with shrimp, and the lamb-enriched version I ordered was $15. While it’s not a mouth-searing killer, it was decidedly hotter than I’m used to finding in the area, and not just offering heat for its own sake. Flavors mixed excitingly with the fire.

Plenty of familiar items are available, including tandoori fare and rice-based biryani dishes, and there’s a sizeable list of vegetarian entrées.

There’s also the usual lunch alterative of a buffet, which when I visited included an array of more than a dozen dishes that included preparations of chicken and lamb (the latter in a sweet coconut sauce) as well as a vegetable curry and deep-fried lentil donuts. And a basket of hot nan is served at your table.

So here, at last, is the place that breaks what’s become a too-familiar pattern in the presentation of Indian cuisine, and I’m betting that it ups the ante for all concerned.

Click here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.


TABLE SCRAPS

Chez Sophie Bistro (2853 Route 9, Malta) announces its first cooking class of the season, to be held from 11 AM to 4 PM Sun., Oct 23. Tentatively titled “Fall Harvest,” the class is limited to 12 people and will be a real hands-on experience. The students will work together to prepare a number of dishes, focusing on techniques that can be used in the home kitchen, after which everyone will sit down to a late-afternoon lunch to enjoy the fruits of those labors—with the added fruit of wine. The price is $125 per person. Also, the restaurant’s first wine dinners of the season take place at 6:30 PM Wed., Nov 9 and Thu., Nov 10. The theme will be “Seraphic Syrah,”and the dinner will focus on the divergent ways in which the French use this versatile grape to make everything from rosé to Chateauneuf du Pape. The dinner will include five courses designed by Chef Paul Parker to complement each wine. The cost is $75 per person plus tax and tip, and seating is limited to 20 people per night around a single banquet table. For more info and reservations, call the restaurant at 583-3538. . . . Remember to pass your scraps to Metroland (e-mail food@banilsson.com).


We want your feedback

Have you eaten at any recently reviewed restaurants? Agree or disagree with B.A.? Let us know what you think...

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What you're saying...

I very much enjoyed eating dinner at Daniel's at Ogdens. You review described my dining experience perfectly. This wasn't the case with Pancho's. I much prefer Garcia's or Lake View Tavern for Mexican fare. I agree that a restaurant can have an off night so I'll give the second unit on Central Avenue a try.

Mary Kurtz
Castleton

First, yes I miss the star ratings, bring it back. Second, I haven't had a chance to visit Poncho's yet, but I especially like reading the reviews.

Pat Russo
East Greenbush

I would travel to Amsterdam to this restaurant - it's not that far away. People traveled from all over to eat at Ferrandi's in Amsterdam. From his background, I'm sure the chef's sauce is excellent and that is the most important aspect of an Italian restaurant. Sometimes your reviewer wastes words on the negative aspects of a restaurant. I'm looking forward to trying this restaurant - I look forward to Metroland every Thursday especially for the restaurant review. And by the way Ferrandi's closed its Amsterdam location and is opening a new bistro on Saratoga Lake - Should be up and running in May. It will be called Saratoga Lake Bistro. It should be great!

Peggy Van Deloo
Schenectady

So happy to see you finally made out!! Our experiences have always been wonderful, the staff is extremely professional, the food subperb, and the atmosphere very warm and comfortable. Let us not forget to mention "Maria" the pianist on Friday and Saturday nights.

Charlie and Marie
Michaels Restaurant

I have been to Michael's several times and each time I have enjoyed it very much. The food is delicious and the staff is great. Also, Maria Riccio Bryce plays piano there every Friday and Saturday evening, a nice touch to add to the already wonderful atmosphere. It is also easy to find, exit 27 off the thruway to 30 north for about 5 miles.

N. Moore
Albany

Wonderful!

Elaine Snowdon
Albany

We loved it and will definitely go back.

Rosemarie Rafferty

Absolutely excellent. The quality and the flavor far surpasses that of other Indian restaurants in the area. I was a die-hard Shalimar fan and Tandoor Palace won my heart. It blows Ghandi out of the water. FInally a decent place in Albany where you can get a good dinner for less than $10 and not have tacos. The outdoor seating is also festive.

Brady G'sell

Indian is my favorite cuisine available in the area--I loved Tandoor Palace. We all agreed that the tandoori chicken was superior to other local restaraunts, and we also tried the ka-chori based on that intriguing description-delicious.

Kizzi Casale
Albany

Your comments about the Indian / Pakistani restaurants being as "standardized as McDonald's" shows either that you have eaten at only a few Indian / Pakistani restaurants or that you have some prejudices to work out. That the physical appearances are not what you would consider fancy dancy has no bearing on the food. And after all, that is what the main focus of the reviews should be. Not the physical appearances, which is what most of your reviews concentrate on.
A restaurant like The Shalimar, down on Central Avenue, may not look the greatest, but the food is excellent there. And the menu has lots of variety - beef, lamb, vegetarian, chicken, and more..

Barry Uznitsky
Guilderland



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