As our population became more diverse, so did our food.
Nirvana Indian Restaurant sits close to Western Turnpike (Route 20) in Guilderland. The long, narrow building is yellow in color, distinguishing it from the rest of the structures along the often busy road.
The interior is as lackluster as the exterior: From left to right, there is a bar scattered with high-top tables; a large, open dining room with tables and booths for about 50 patrons; and in back is a covered patio for dining when the weather cooperates.
Absent are fancy photos, glitzy sequined elephant headdresses or servers clad in Indian garb. What was present, however, were caring adults in tidy black and white, ready to tend to our needs and questions.
Serious diners may be leery of Indian food because of what they perceive as volcanic heat. Yet few chefs have overinflated egos that interfere with pleasing a customer. Only twice have I experienced a chef who refused to modify the heat because it would ruin the integrity of the dish. I admired her devotion to the preparation of the entrée.
Unlike the walls, the cuisine is in no way neutral. Dishes include ingredients such as spiced marinated eggplant topped with tamarind sauce, onion, tomato and cilantro sauce. Two, three and four little red peppers march bravely across the pages of the menu like parading soldiers. The number of peppers notifies patrons that some dishes are apt to be too spicy for their palates.
Besides vegetarian and nonvegetarian appetizers, the menu features soups and salads, tandoor/grill, dishes of chicken, lamb, goat and seafood. Side dishes of vegetables (like lentils and Indian cottage cheese), biryani, rice, Indian breads and desserts are also included.
Making choices was difficult. I wish I had sought out the menu online for a little personal study beforehand.
Our only guidelines were to avoid duplication. Portions in a restaurant are generally large enough to share, especially if one samples appetizers, an entrée, salad, starch, dessert and coffee.
How do you stay so slim, I once asked a reviewer? It’s simple, he replied: I just taste.
Neither fried appetizer (Crispy Vegetable Platter, fritters with seasonal vegetables $7; and Onion Bhaji, batter-fried onion fritters, $6) was especially crispy. Neither had much flavor.
But the two accompanying sauces (mint and tamarind) had both flavor and heat, and added life to the bland appetizers.
Guest had his heart set on goat and I on lamb. Of the three goat items on the menu, two wore “two stars,” leaving only one unadorned. That was the one he ordered, but even that recipe boasted a spicy after-taste.
Curry Goat ($17) chunks with the bone in had been cooked in an onion-and-tomato-favored sauce and finished with coriander and curry leaves.
Guest was pleased that the sauce brought out the flavor of the goat without overpowering it. My mom would have said it would even make sawdust taste great.
Except for the specific herbs and spices, the lamb was similar to the goat. I knew the creamy sauce of cashews and almonds included fresh cardamom, but the pungent scent I expected was not pronounced.
We both ordered Madras Coffee ($3.50 each) and found it to be strong. Server Charlie explained that in India, diners would enjoy their coffee with milk — as did we.
Guest rarely orders dessert but often tastes mine.
I was unfamiliar with Gulab Jamun ($5). Described on the menu as milk-and-butter balls soaked in sugar and cardamom syrup, there were three in a martini glass with enough syrup to cover the 1-inch sponge balls and slurp up at the end.
I realized at the end of a good meal that a restaurant doesn’t need elaborate décor to be successful.
Fine food and attentive service like those at Nirvana are the keys.
Nirvana Indian Restaurant
WHERE: 5180 Western Turnpike (Route 20) Altamont, 12009; 518-355-2000; fax 518-355-0002; email [email protected]; www.AlbanyNirvana.com
WHEN: Open seven days, Monday-Friday noon-2:30 p.m., dinner 5-10 p.m.; Saturday-Sunday lunch noon-3 p.m., dinner 5-10 p.m.
HOW MUCH: $76 without tax or tip
MORE INFO: Parking area, handicapped accessible, credit cards accepted, takeout, delivery, online ordering, outdoor dining weather permitting, children’s meals.
More from The Daily Gazette: