Spice of Life
By B.A. Nilsson
638 Loudon Road, Latham,
782-1510. Serving Tue-Sun 11-10. AE, D, DC, MC, V.
Food: * * * ½
hadn’t chatted for a while. My friend had been abroad, in
some testy areas, so our main purpose was to chin-wag. The
food would be attractive but part of the background, giving
us a more exotic mise en scène than most eateries. Given my
penchant for bold flavors, it’s no surprise that Indian cuisine
is one of my favorites, though it’s tempered by sameness.
There’s comfort in familiarity, I guess, but it brings to
mind the canard about all those Indian restaurants on Manhattan’s
6th Street, suggesting they share a common kitchen.
I’ve lost count of the number of Indian restaurants that have
occupied this onetime Pizza Hut building on Route 9 in Latham,
just south of the intersection with Route 155. They came and
went, and I tried them all and didn’t write about most of
Now it’s Biryani, taking its name from a popular rice-and-meat
dish that accommodates plenty of variation; which is appropriate,
as the restaurant itself is a variation, however slight, on
the norm, with livelier flavors and some unexpected menu items.
It’s not easy to disguise a Pizza Hut, but the inside is decorated
distractingly enough to help you forget that provenance. The
couple of parties who came in as I dined seemed tentative,
not at all reassured by the familiarity of the place. The
staff couldn’t have been friendlier, but that menu certainly
gives the uninitiated Westerner something to chew over.
You, the Metroland reader, are, of course, too hip
to need any coaxing, so let’s get down to business. Familiar
starters include deep-fried samosas, pakoras and
aloo tikka ($3 each). You have a choice of pakora
fillings; potato or cauliflower or hot peppers are dipped
in a chickpea-flour-based batter, deep fried and served with
tamarind sauce and a spicy mint sauce. The hot peppers are
a great touch, not too searing but certainly something to
awaken the palate.
poori, an appetizer ($3), surprised us—and stopped us
talking for a while, in fact, as we savored the unusual gathering
of ingredients. Chickpeas and potatoes are a popular combination
in Indian cookery, and they’re well complemented by onions
and cilantro. But this got a distinctive crunch from crisped
rice—poori is a Tamil term for puffed rice, easily
confused with the Hindi poori, which describes deep-fried
bread pillows. The rice dish is tied together with yoghurt
and an array of seasonings that keep it lively.
It’s interesting to note that, of the many seasonings associated
with this cuisine, only a few are native to India: turmeric,
cardamom and black pepper chief among them. Coriander, cumin,
fennel and fenugreek found their way from the Mediterranean;
chilies came from across the Atlantic.
Yet more reason to welcome this cuisine. Lentil soup is easy
to find in many domestic restaurants, but the Biryani version
($2.75) is thinner and sweeter and sparked with cilantro.
Similarly, mulligatawny soup ($2.75) puts together an even
greater variety of vegetables with easygoing but active spices,
a worthy variation on a soup for which no standard recipe
exists. Its name is a transliteration of a term for “pepper
water,” and it gained popularity during the British occupation
of India and Pakistan.
is a word found in Persian and Urdu, and it describes
a special-occasion dish that typically requires time- consuming
preparation. The restaurant presents it with chicken ($10),
lamb ($11), shrimp ($13) or a vegetable combo ($9). Made with
long-grain basmati rice, it sports many aromatic spices, a
strong presence of chile pepper upon request (and I requested
it), a touch of tomato, and a scent of saffron soaked in warm
milk. The lamb variety was wonderfully seasoned and very generous
in portion size, with plenty leftover for another meal that
nobody else would touch, thanks to its heat. It’s served with
a side of raita, a cucumber-yoghurt mix that sweetens
the biryani kick.
Other entrées include a number of qorma preparations
($9-$14), in which meats, shrimp or vegetables are cooked
in a cream sauce with almonds and cashews; thanks to a tandoor
oven, those same items can be pulled from a pungent marinade
and given a quick trip through a very hot oven. Vegetable-based
dishes abound, some in combination with Indian cheeses, like
the popular palak paneer, combining spinach and cheese
Chicken and beef also get curried, creamed or spiced into
a vindaloo; a serving of ginger beef ($9) included
bell peppers and tomatoes in a creamy sauce with a good presence
of fresh ginger, but nothing overwhelmingly spicy.
You can’t dine the Indian way without bread. We began with
a pre-appetizer of papadum ($1.25), a fried wafer made
from lentils, and dredged hunks of garlic kulcha ($2.50)
through our dinners—the last-named a whole wheat, unleavened
bread cooked in the tandoor oven.
Indian-restaurant desserts are, traditionally, few. Biryani
offers nothing unusual, but the rice pudding (kheer,
$3) is especially creamy, with pistachios in generous supply;
gulab jampan ($2.50) derives from the cheese paneer,
formed into balls and fried, sweetened in a bland syrup.
Distracted from our conversation throughout this arresting
meal, my friend and I made plans to meet again elsewhere—probably
a hot dog joint next time.
Dinner for two, with lots of stuff, iced tea, desserts, tax
and tip, was $59.
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