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Exploring the Middle East

Aashiana Restaurant

31 Central Ave., Albany, 463-4161. Serving Mon-Thu 11:30-10, Fri 11:30-11, Sat noon-11. Lunch buffet Mon-Sat until 3. AE, D, MC, V.

Cuisine: Middle Eastern

Entrée price range: 4 (vegetable wrap) to $8 (beef shawarma)

Ambiance: intimate

 

By B.A. Nilsson

Central Avenue’s restaurant row covers a diverse range of ethnicities, the only significantly American eateries being the fast-food joints that spring up as you head west. Indian, Caribbean, Mexican, Italian and so many more, a world tour requiring no tickets or travel agents.

This isn’t a high-end journey, and for the most part you’re traveling steerage. But that also means it’s not very costly, so it’s worth your while to explore.

When Saleem Khan decided to open a branch of Aashiana on Central Ave., he already had a successful Indian restaurant on Schenectady’s Jay Street. But the Albany location would be cheek by jowl with Shalimar and Ghandi, so he decided to veer the cuisine in another direction, opting for a Middle Eastern menu of wraps, salads and simple entrées.

Following the evolutionary process common in restaurants, as they pass from one family member to the next or simply change hands, Khan unloaded the Schenectady branch (it’s now called Taj Mahal) and is concentrating on his Albany eatery.

It’s a very small venue, with only a handful of glass-topped tables (the number varies according to how many have been combined to accommodate large parties), paper napkins and a simple menu.

Lunchtime visitors can opt for the $6 buffet, with a changing roster of items that always includes a couple of meat dishes (one of which is usually some form of lamb), several vegetarian choices, bread, salad and dessert.

Once the staple of low-budget weddings, the buffet has supplanted most traditional Chinese restaurants and given us places like Old Country Buffet, a fat-guy paradise (provided you don’t require such details as flavor).

Aashiana’s buffet, like that of other ethnic eateries, allows the lunchtime crowd to get in and out quickly and for a reasonable price. It’s also an excellent way to meet the cuisine; I’ve introduced many a doubter to Indian fare this way.

Here, the emphasis on Middle Eastern fare offers a different opportunity for exploration. Mediterranean and Middle Eastern, I should say, with a selection that ranges from a Greek salad ($4) to pungent skewers of beef shawarma ($8, for a platter that includes rice and salad).

My wife and daughter and I were seated at one of the few tables in this oh-so-casual room, enjoying the evening, enjoying our family—so plugged in to the rituals of fine dining that, as if by instinct, we went for the appetizer-entrée approach, even though it’s not at all the way we dine at home.

A plate of olives and pickles was served to each of us, a fine-dining touch that suggested we weren’t so crazy. My daughter recently had turned up her nose at a chickpea-based dish I made, proclaiming the legume useless; I talked her into the hummus appetizer ($3) and she revised her opinion. Now she demands only that her chickpeas be mashed.

Fattoush ($4) is one of four salads available (tabouli, Greek, and grilled chicken are the others, same price range), and probably the most complicated, offering a minty, vinegary dressing over chopped lettuce, crisped pita and accompanying veggies.

Aahiana’s three soup selections ($4 each) include a mix of chicken and couscous, as well as a traditional lentil brew; fasoulatha, which I sampled, is a Greek recipe that combines white beans with carrots, celery, tomatoes and parsley into a hearty blend.

Their five chicken-based entrées are $8 apiece, the meat variously cubed, ground, marinated and otherwise reimagined. Kebab mashweh gives you four skewer-grilled, sausage-shaped patties of spiced meat served with rice, salad and a yoghurt-based sauce. Much of the appealing flavor coming from the sauce’s subtle sourness.

Another ground-meat dish is kibbah ($8), toasted pine nuts added to fried beef patties and served on a similarly rice- and salad-garnished platter.

Looking for a quick sandwich? Wraps of veggies, falafel, grilled or ground chicken, and beef shawarma ($4 to $5) are always available, and thanks to some nearby customers I can attest to their generous size.

If you prefer the vegetarian route (as my wife does every so often to stake some kind of moral high ground over me), four $7 entrées offer a good variety. She chose nivik, a full-flavored, spinach-based casserole cooked with chickpeas and tomatoes. Other selections include zucchini or eggplant in tomato sauce or a green bean casserole called lubyi by zayt.

I can’t help coming back to the point that there’s nothing fancy about your surroundings here: The luxury is all in the food and in the attention owner Khan pays to the kitchen and dining room. The food is tasty and inexpensive, and arrives quickly enough to engage your senses. What more could you ask?

Click here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.


TABLE SCRAPS

Harvest events abound, so keep your eyes peeled for what’s happening in the neighborhood. Which, if it happens to be downtown Troy, includes a Spanish-themed dinner at Carmen’s Café (198 First St.) from 6:30 to 9:30 PM tomorrow (Friday, Sept 14), featuring locally grown produce. Enjoy beef and pork tacos, salsa and guacamole, salad with mango and avocado and much more, including Carmen’s signature homemade flan. Suggested donation is $20, and you can reserve a seat in this tiny place by calling 272-3011. . . . Honest Weight Food Co-Op (484 Central Ave., Albany) is hosting seasonal events this month, including a sampling of the wares from Organic Nectars, a local producer of raw, vegan and organic culinary components, including snacks and desserts. This takes place from 11 AM to 3 PM Saturday (Sept 15); a week later (10 to 2 on Saturday, Sept 22), meet Amsterdam, N.Y.-based author Anita Sanchez, who will read from her new book The Teeth of the Lion: The Story of the Beloved and Despised Dandelion. She will also share her research experiences and memorabilia related to the dandelion. More info: 482-2667. . . . Remember to pass your scraps to Metroland (food@banilsson dot 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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