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Photo: B.A. Nilsson

New Name, Same Comfort

By B.A. Nilsson

 

LaZeez Restaurant

35 Central Ave., Albany, 465-0333. Serving buffet lunch 11:30-2:30 Mon-Fri, noon-2:30 Sat-Sun, full menu 11:30-10 Mon-Thu, 11:30-11 Fri, noon-11 Sat, noon-10 Sun. Dinner buffet 5:30-9:30 Fri-Sat. Free local delivery. AE, D, MC, V.

Cuisine: Indian-Pakistani

Entrée price range: $9 (vegetable curry) to $14 (shrimp biryani)

Ambiance: rudimentary but pleasant

It’s an appropriate reflection of the times that Indian cookery can become comfort food. Entering LaZeez—opening the storefront door to leave a chilly downtown Albany sidewalk and embrace a swirl of pleasing pungency—is a reminder that a lifetime of Indian restaurant visits has turned the experience into something that invites settling in, relaxation.

Add to it the particular history of this place, which opened nearly 20 years ago as Shalimar and immediately became a staff favorite. Soon thereafter, owner Qasim Bhatti opened a Shalimar in Troy. He sold them both six years ago to take a breather from the business, and family member Leo Ashiq was among those spreading the Shalimar empire, adding similar restaurants in Clifton Park and Delmar. But Bhatti retained the Albany building, so when Ashiq closed the flagship eatery last year, Bhatti decided to get back into the madness, and thus LaZeez, which takes its name from an Urdu word for “delicious.” Bhatti also has opened a Shalimar in Latham at the site of the former Afghan Grill.

What with the cookie-cutter aspect of many Indian eateries, does LaZeez show distinguishing characteristics? It does. Service is unusually gracious and accommodating, for starters. The tables, like the dining room as a whole, are comfortable but not fancy. We were swept to a likely spot with splendid courtesy and it was immediately determined not only that we wanted an order of naan but that the bread should be of the stuffed-with-garlic variety.

That’s because we arrived on a Friday evening and discovered that LaZeez serves a dinner buffet—as well as on Saturday nights—for the astonishingly low price of 10 bucks, and that includes the naan. We’re used to the lunchtime buffet, which is a staple of Indian restaurants and is indeed featured here every afternoon of the week. The trade-off for what might not be the hottest and freshest food is getting in and out quickly—and the ability to sample a lot more than if you were ordering a la carte.

As it happened, we were a little rushed, and those extra few minutes saved were a boon. Also, the buffet is well-tended and the various preparations often are such that they don’t mind a bit of time in a chafing dish: items like a vegetable korma, which was one of the nine main-course elements available, in addition to starters and dessert. Korma is a preparation so light and creamy you’d hardly know there are curry seasonings lurking within, and it derives some of its surprisingly rich texture from ground nuts. It can accompany all manner of meat or fish, but the flavor of a vegetable array keeps the dish light and well-matched to a serving of rice (also, of course, available and decorated with its own veggies).

Sometimes, at a sit-down Indian meal, you get a starter of papadum, crisp lentil wafers served with a trio of dips (mint, tamarind, spicy onion). Here it’s on the buffet table, alongside a basket of pakora, which are deep-fried vegetables in chickpea-flour fritters. And there’s a (largely negligible) green salad. Had we been more menu- minded—and the full menu is always available—we could have spent from $3 to $5 for samosas as appetizers in various guises; everything else that’s listed was on the table.

Entrées are built around various meat and seafood items, with a healthy list of vegetarian options as well. Thus there’s chicken, beef, lamb, salmon or shrimp served with spinach (palak) for $10 or (with seafood) $14. Every item has its curry; some get the do piazza treatment, which puts tomatoes and onions in the mix. Chicken tikka masala ($11) was also on the buffet, and takes korma a step further with a tangy marinade flavoring the bird. Another tasty option, not on the menu, is goat curry (on-the-bone, of course), presenting a flavor many layers deep.

Clumped as it is in one of many chafing dishes, it’s easy to overlook what makes a biryani special. This noble rice dish combines a wealth of aromatic seasonings with a long preparation time and the inclusion of vegetables and/or a meatstuff. Here the deep yellow vegetable version offered a meal in itself. Slop korma sauce on it and I’ll slap your hand.

Bund gobi aloo (cabbage with potatoes) offered a good contrast. It’s a cabbage dish, lightly seasoned. And there was a non-menu stew of mushrooms among other veggie-based offerings—more than enough, in other words, to satisfy both appetite and curiosity. Except that I longed for something spicier, and so ordered a serving of lamb vindaloo ($10). It was spicier, which was nice, and a well-balanced representation of this dish. But how I wish they’d cut loose in the kitchen some time and really believe me when I say I want it hot.

With fresh-baked naan to maneuver around the plate, we enjoyed way too much dinner to even dip into the kheer, a thin rice pudding set off with pistachios and almonds. This $10 weekend buffet is the bargain of the neighborhood—and beyond—and I’m delighted not only to find Bhatti back in business here but to have a reason to stop in on concert nights.

Click here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.


TABLE SCRAPS

I’m digging in as much as you are in order to eat well while money is scarce. So I thought I’d share some tips and techniques, and will do so over four weeks at the Arts Center of the Capital Region in Troy, with a class called Cooking for the New Economy. Make your shopping trips more efficient and plan menus without waste. Can I cook anywhere as well as those I criticize? Find out and enjoy some (putatively) tasty food over the course of four Mondays (Jan. 24-Feb. 14) from 6 to 9 PM. More info at artscenteronline.org. . . . Remember to pass your scraps to Metroland.



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