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Teri Currie

The Spice of Life
By B.A. Nilsson

Biryani
638 Loudon Road, Latham, 782-1510. Serving Tue-Sun 11-10. AE, D, DC, MC, V.

Food: * * * ½
Service: Efficient
Ambiance: Comfortable

We 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 them.

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.

Bhel 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.

Biryani 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 ($8).

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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