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Photo: B.A. Nilsson

Berkshire Biryani

By B.A. Nilsson

Aroma Bar & Grill

485 Main St., Great Barrington, Mass., (413) 528-3116. Serving lunch noon-3 Tue-Sun, dinner 5-9:30 Sun-Thu, 5-10 Fri-Sat. Sunday buffet noon-3. AE, D, MC, V.

Cuisine: Indian

Entrée price range: $11 (vegetable curry) to $22 (whole chicken tandoori)

Ambiance: pizza place

A good friend recently moved to Great Barrington, giving me an added prod to visit a town I’ve always enjoyed from my 90-mile distance. Not least because it packs a nice variety of restaurants in a few downtown blocks. The burg was not always a resort getaway like neighboring Stockbridge and Lenox, but has become more so in the past three decades, and its population nowadays is salted with many a transplanted Manhattanite. Its New England crankiness is realized, in part, by its own currency, BerkShare notes, each dollar of which—exchanged on a one-for-one basis at local banks—trades for 95 U.S. cents at more than 350 local establishments, giving shoppers a small discount while affirming the importance of community-based commerce.

The downtown area sports a mix of lovely old houses, vintage shops and the usual more-recent intrusions of architectural ugliness, but when dressed in snow and holiday lights, it looks relentlessly charming. So we took a recent stroll along Main Street, taking in the holiday finery, rushing to inspect antiques, cooking ware, cowboy clothing and all manner of handcrafted goodies, studying window-posted menus along the way, trying to find the perfect fit for a quartet of divergent appetites.

A chance remark by our friend Robin gave us common ground: “I enjoyed an Indian restaurant called Aroma not long ago . . .”

The restaurant sits far enough from the village center to send us back to the car, but this also meant that we could ease into a parking lot once we released our desirable downtown space. A few Italian-themed decor elements remain as vestiges of Aroma’s pizza-making predecessor, but it’s not the ambiance that brings you here. It’s comfortable enough, with the dining room’s tables and booths flanking a divider that gives a sense of intimacy. Service is cheerful and you’ll get any information you need about menu items—and, as I discovered, a chance to retract any order of spicy food. But, yes, I was sure I wanted it hot.

We started with a complimentary basket of papadum, which are crisp lentil wafers accompanied by spicy onion chutney, mint sauce and tamarind sauce. It’s an old-fashioned Indian-restaurant custom that has all but disappeared.

Six menu pages offer the expected gamut of traditional Indian fare, with Aroma’s masalas noted as signature dishes. Masala denotes a mixed variety of spices, dry roasted or finished in a slurry. The six items on the list ($13-$17) include preparations of chicken, fish, shrimp or vegetables, in sauces typically finished with tomato.

Lamb tikka kabab masala ($16) offered tandoor-baked lamb sausage as its main ingredient, which would be appealing enough on its own (and is thus available as lamb kabab kadai, $15). With the addition of the tomato sauce, finished with cream, it sounded irresistible.

It was. Not only was the spice combination rugged enough to be interesting (and spicy enough, per my request), it also complemented the lamb without overwhelming it. Served with a side of basmati rice, it had a brightness of flavor my jaded palate encounters too rarely. And it proved to be a good successor to my starter, a $4 bowl of rasam, which is a light lentil soup from southern India with the subtle sweetness of tamarind. Robin’s mulligatawny soup ($4) was, in Aroma’s preparation, a close cousin to the rasam, but tending more toward curry flavors.

Other starters include an array of deep-fried stuff: thick-coated samosas stuffed with potatoes and peas ($4) or minced lamb ($5); crunchy pakoras with a core of vegetables or Indian cheese ($5 per order) or chicken ($7), fish ($8) shrimp ($9), some combo options and even chicken wings (10 for $9). Potatoes and peas also form the basis of aloo tikki ($5), which emerge as two thick deep-fried discs that use the pakora chick-pea-flour-based batter but have a smoother texture.

Meat that’s baked in the hot clay tandoori oven makes for some of the best barbecue, and you can get all of the meat and fish you’d expect here, prices ranging from a $13 order of cream-coated chicken to a whole chicken, masala marinated, for $22.

The half-page of chicken dishes ($13-$14) includes the usual curry, vindaloo and korma varieties. We enjoyed the chicken madras, a curry enhanced with pepper and lemon (the menu reminds us that “it was south India which exported black pepper to the world”), and mango chicken jalfrezie, which adds vegetables and mango to the mix—rich, thick and sweet. Many of the chicken dishes are duplicated with lamb ($14-$15), and the $17 seafood dishes center around the shrimp or the fish of the day. And there are plenty of vegetarian options ($11-$13) featuring eggplant, lentils, chick peas, okra, cauliflower and homemade cheese.

Southern Indian biryanis are said to be the test of a chef. It’s a slow-simmered pilaf in which seasoned meats or veggies get cooked in a serving of basmati rice, served with a side of yogurt-based raita. The chicken biryani ($14, and yes, we can’t get enough chicken) was an impressive representation of this, presented in an elegant copper pot and releasing a most pleasing aroma, making the name of the place all the more appropriate.

Even with two orders of tandoori-baked nan, the meal proved surprisingly affordable, especially for Great Barrington. Too full to consider any of the sweet desserts, laden with take-out containers of leftovers, we staggered back into the cold and drove back into town, well-fortified for more shopping.

Click here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.


TABLE SCRAPS

It’s the Toast of Christmas Past. New World Home Cooking (1411 Route 212, Saugerties) holds its 13th New World Champagne Dinner on Friday (Dec. 18) with favorite selections from the 12 past celebrations. Chef Ric Orlando and CIA wine professor Michael Weiss have chosen such items as a blue corn-lobster tamale with huitlacoche-poblano crema, paired with an Iron Horse Russian Cuvee; wild mushroom pierogis with white woodears and lemon-chive butter with a Pol Roget Brut; and Creole-style pan-roasted quail with dirty rice, red beans and sauce picante alongside an Australian Shingleback Black Bubbles. Dinner is at 7 PM and priced at $75 per person ($50 without wine). Reservations are required. Call (845) 246-0900. . . . Remember to pass your scraps to Metroland.



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