CLIFTON PARK — What you eat is a reflection of the long history of where you live and who was there before you. That’s true no matter where you are. A country’s cuisine is like a language: It is constantly changing, adding new words and reflecting the influence of its population.
The cuisine of the Malabar region is influenced by Arabian, Persian, Indian and European styles. Spice Malabar, cognizant that this is a changing world, adds American to that list. That is an observation, not a criticism.
The restaurant’s decor is serene; fashionable and upscale suburban, according to my friend Amy, which is just right for the neighborhood. The materials are stone, wood, glass and other hard surfaces that reflect noise. There are cushioned seats and banquettes, and lots of room between tables. Tasteful recessed lighting makes it sleek — on a winter evening the atmosphere is almost clinical. Not cozy, but certainly spotless.
We got there just after opening on a weeknight. Spice Malabar opens for a lunch buffet and later again at 5 p.m. for dinner. It wasn’t busy yet but steadily filled up.
The buffet offers a variety of starters and mains, both vegetarian and meat-based, but the dinner menu is broad and deep.
You could make a meal of starters and street snacks, which we almost did. There is bhel poori ($6), made with spicy puffed rice, and other appetizers such as samosas ($6) and the Malabar veggie sampler ($14). There’s dosa ($10), thin pancakes of lentils and rice filled with sambar, a lentil-based vegetable stew, and chutney. There’s also shrimp in creamy sauce ($12) and the Malabar meat sampler ($16), and assorted kebabs.
The Spice Malabar specials are their entrees, all $30, quite elaborate if our simpler meals were anything to go by. There’s rack of lamb, fish or jumbo shrimp cooked in coconut milk and tomatoes, with spices and curry leaves, and fish in banana leaf. The specials come with vegetable biryani and broccoli.
Tandoori dishes are reasonably priced, from vegetable tandoori and Indian cheese called paneer ($18), to garlic chicken ($19) and jumbo shrimp ($23). Biryani, a rice-based dish, comes with egg ($15), chicken ($18) and shrimp ($20), among others.
Naan, like bread in many restaurants, is extra. Plain is $3; loaded (latch paratha) is $6.
Crowd-pleaser chicken tikka masala, in a mild tomato and cream sauce, is $19, chicken vindaloo with pickled red-chili sauce is $18. There are lamb and goat specials, seafood specials, and vegetarian and vegan mains.
Amy and I were seated along the banquette after the restaurant just opened and it was a bit chilly inside. A server welcomed us. Another brought us menus. A third person brought crispy pappadam and tasty dips: a sweet onion chutney that tasted pickled and a bright green, cilantro-forward cool dip that packed a bit of heat.
Meantime we’d put in our order. It didn’t take long for our appetizers to arrive. We had fancy vegetable samosas beautifully presented ($6) and ragada ($10), mashed potato patties on a bed of chickpeas.
I’d expected plain turnovers for samosas; these were much more elegant and flavorful, deep-fried and crispy shells filled with peas, potato and chickpeas. “It’s like an Indian knish,” I said to Amy, munching one. With added heat.
The presentation set the tone for the rest of the meal. The samosas were crisp molded pyramids set in a bed of salad greens, garnished with shredded carrot and a flower made from a red pepper. The sauce reminded Amy of applesauce, though it was no such thing, but it was warm from cinnamon and sweet. It was lovely.
The ragada arrived next, another elaborate dish beautifully presented and garnished. Here, the mild breaded mashed-potato cakes were topped with bright green pea sauce, toasted coconut, chopped cilantro and red onion, served over seasoned chickpeas. There was a lot going on.
The chickpeas were so delicious they made me rethink chickpeas entirely. Cooked into absolute silkiness, and along with the sauce and chopped herbs and vegetables, they just went to another level. I had no idea.
“We could have made a meal of these,” said Amy, gesturing toward the plates.
My chicken tandoori ($18, half order) announced itself by sizzling loudly and sending up waves of fragrant steam, but the plump chicken pieces were what got my attention. There were four pieces, three cut from a large, bone-in half breast and a perfect drumstick, pink from seasoning and so, so juicy.
This is the most American tandoori chicken I’ve ever had and I don’t mean that in a bad way. The plump pieces were exceptionally juicy, tender and moist. That’s how Spice Malabar expects its customers want the popular dish.
And points to them: They have tandoori chicken wings on their menu as well. When in Rome …
The chicken retained its moisture and flavor beautifully. A little bit of skin and fat crisped up around the edges — delicious. I wouldn’t be surprised to find meat this moist under a layer of breading and pulled from a deep fryer, but that this was cooked without the skin is amazing.
The leftovers were excellent, even better because I could eat them with my hands, which turned a bit yellow from the delicious spices. The moist meat and charred ends made it one of the best things I’ve eaten.
We’d ordered onion naan ($4) to go with our meal. The dough was patted in a circle and baked, cut into four pieces and tucked into a paper-lined basket. It was puffed and blistered around the edges, buttered in the middle, and topped with flecks of green onion and other vegetables. “I like how it’s stretchy and soft inside, and crispy on the outside,” said Amy. I found it pillowy, like the softest pizza crust ever. Comfort food.
It also reheated beautifully and was just as good the next day.
Amy ordered Chana Masala ($15), a chickpea dish in a creamy spiced sauce with ginger, onions, tomato, garlic and spices. “The chickpeas are spiced perfectly. The sauce has just a little heat,” she said.
It came with a dish of blindingly white rice accented with fresh green peas. “I like that they put peas in here for color,” said Amy as she scooped some onto her plate.
After a few bites she said, “I would definitely come back here.” She has enjoyed many good meals at Karavalli in Latham, the family’s other location.
The next day I received a photo of Amy’s lunch, served beautifully over greens. She suggested it may be even better the next day. All told, it made four servings.
The staff checked in on us to make sure we were enjoying our meal and topping off our water glasses without being annoying. There was a brief wait for the first course and just the right interval until the meals came out.
At this point, Spice Malabar got the only demerit of the night: When the beautiful entrees came out, we had to shift plates of samosa and ragada and baskets of pappadam and condiments. Luckily the table was a generous size, but it was all confusion.
I am not graceful or coordinated when transferring leftovers from large plates into small containers. “Can we have these wrapped?” I asked the server. And here exactly is the line between fine and casual dining: “I’ll bring you boxes,” he replied.
He was as good as his word, promptly delivering pint plastic containers and brown bags, adding even more chaos to the already crowded table. We pushed away what needed wrapping and moved the new plates around to photograph, and eat.
We slopped our leftover appetizers into the containers. At the end of the next course, we repeated our request, and someone arrived with many more pint containers and some aluminum thermal wrap.
Once we’d packed everything, Amy pointed out that her brown bag was showing a dark spot at the bottom, “And I know how you feel about your car,” she said, considerately.
We were able to procure plastic bags, which solved the problem.
This is not to criticize Spice Malabar, just to say they exist in that space where the food and atmosphere are upscale but it’s not quite fine dining. And points to them again, they exceeded expectations and fooled us.
When I was small and my parents came home from dinner at a fancy restaurant they often brought leftovers wrapped in foil by the staff, made into various shapes, the swan being the most memorable.
I don’t need a swan, I just need someone with better skills and implements to pack away the leftovers for me sometimes. “The only demerit,” said Amy.
Other than that, we loved our meal and the warm and gracious staff. “I will definitely come back,” Amy said, as she tucked her three-plus-days’ worth of leftovers carefully into the space behind the front passenger seat of my car — in its plastic bag.
Caroline Lee is a freelance writer who lives in Troy. Reach her at [email protected].
WHERE: 7 Southside Drive, Clifton Park (The Shops at Village Plaza); (518) 478-8087; spicemalabar.com
WHEN: Open for lunch from noon to 2:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday and until 3 p.m. on Friday and Saturday;
for dinner from 5 to 9 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday; and until 9:30 p.m. Saturday. Closed Monday.
HOW MUCH: $67.61 for dinner, with tax and tip
MORE INFO: ADA compliant. Parking in lot. Credit cards: Mastercard, Visa, American Express, Discover. Apple Pay.