CLIFTON PARK – Spice Malabar isn’t the first restaurant chef Vince George has opened, though it has been perhaps the most challenging.
The Clifton Park eatery, which is a sister location to Karavalli in Latham, just opened in March, though plans have been in the works since 2018. The space at 7 Southside Drive in the Shops at Village Plaza was previously an Alex and Ani jewelry store. Major renovation work was needed to turn it into the vibrant space it is now, including gutting it and constructing a kitchen.
Just as the construction was nearly complete last year, George and his team hit a few snags, many of them caused directly or indirectly by the pandemic.
“We were supposed to open last March, but because of COVID we couldn’t make it happen,” George said.
At the time, he was traveling in Kuwait and was scheduled to return home on March 16.
“The airport closed on March 14,” George said. He couldn’t get back to the United States until it reopened several months later in August. Even when he was able to return, there were more delays in getting furniture orders, which were supposed to ship from New York City.
Then, some of the contractors he worked with came down with COVID. To top it off, he also contracted the virus. Though he recovered in a few weeks, his illness added to the delays.
“We faced a lot of challenges,” George said.
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All that work finally seems to be paying off. Since opening, George said they’ve had great feedback from customers, some of whom were regulars at Karavalli and some who were new.
“We have good support from the local people from the community who knew Karavalli. [Those] who [didn’t] know Karavalli, many of them are trying it,” George said. “Many people are coming and saying, ‘So now we don’t need to drive all [that] way to have good food.’ ”
Spice Malabar specializes in both northern and southern Indian cuisine. The two differ both in ingredients and cooking methods.
According to George, southern dishes traditionally include seafood and use little to no dairy. Taking inspiration from the cuisines of Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Mangalore and Goa, Spice Malabar’s southern Indian dishes tend to be more health-conscious.
“They use coconut as a thickening agent and coconut oil for cooking,” George said.
Northern Indian cuisine is sometimes cooked in a cylindrical clay oven known as a tandoor, said George. Chefs slow-cook meats and vegetables in yogurt, tomato, onion and tree nut-based sauces, ensuring they’re as tender as they are flavorful.
“The key ingredient is yogurt because the meat won’t get dry when we marinate the meat in the yogurt. Along with that, we do some breads like naan, garlic naan, onion naan. All these breads are made in a clay oven, too, called tandoor,” George said.
Spice Malabar’s menu is extensive, from the creamy tomato-based masala to the marinated lamb kebabs to the samosa chaat, which are packed with onions, chickpeas and tamarind. Many of them are rich in flavor and are, as the restaurant’s name would suggest, spicy. However, diners can request different levels of heat.
With Spice Malabar, George also made a point to include options for those with special diets. An entire section of the menu is dedicated to dishes for vegetarians and vegans.
“Nowadays people are very health-conscious and they want to eat healthy food, dairy-free, and that was the thought to make a whole page [of] choices,” George said.
Many of the dishes he prepares today are family recipes he’s made since childhood.
“From when I was a kid onward, I like tasty food, and if the food [was] not tasty I don’t eat it,” George said. “I used to help my mom, and then when I was in school I used to go and help one chef [with] cooking when he [did] catering events in India.”
From there, George attended Madras University in Chennai to study culinary arts. After graduating, he made his way as a chef aboard Carnival Cruise Lines, cooking for 3,000 people daily. Eventually he began working at Karavalli of Latham, where he has been the executive chef for 10 years and has helped to open other restaurants such as Bombay Royale in Northampton, Massachusetts.
He’s had his eye on a Clifton Park location because the town seems to be growing, George said. But more importantly, his customers from Karavalli kept asking him to open a location in town.
“We have a lot of demand from Clifton Park. Now Clifton Park is booming, and a lot of people are working in Albany and living in Clifton Park. When they come to Karavalli they always ask us, ‘Why don’t we think of opening a restaurant in Clifton Park? . . . We have a lot of chain restaurants in Clifton Park,’ ” George said. “Many people are into healthy food, so that is the key reason we thought of opening in Clifton Park.”
For anyone who is looking to try northern or southern Indian cuisine for the first time and wants a sampling of the flavors, George recommends coming to Spice Malabar when the buffet is open from 12-2:30 p.m. weekdays and 12-3 p.m. on weekends. Dishes are paired with brief descriptions, though George and his team are always open to taking questions.
“I will be there most of the days and people can come and ask me, and if they mention anything to me I can help them on that,” George said.
For information, visit spicemalabar.com.
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