Schenectady has acquired the reputation of being a mecca for pilgrims looking for restaurants, from homey to trendy and everything in between. Ethnic foods such as Italian have always been available in the Electric City, but recently, more exotic cuisines like Middle Eastern and West Caribbean have found their way into the city.
A year ago, Tiffany’s West Indian Restaurant, named for the daughter of the owners, set up shop in a tidy storefront in the 1300 block of State Street. I was both amused and intrigued by the menu painted boldly on the front windows of the venue: “Fried Banga Mary, Fried Shark, Egg Ball, Cassava Ball, Bara, Pholourie, Dhal Puri, Roti.” Really?
Only roti was familiar to me. Unleavened bread grilled on a hot metal surface, roti is flexible and excellent for sopping up the spicy curry gravy of meats such as duck, chicken, goat (mutton) or lamb; or fish such as hassa (armored catfish), gilbaka, shrimp or tilapia.
The Tiffany’s decor and menu were modest. Eleven tables seating four were situated under 10 small “chandeliers” and spaced around an L-shaped counter. A smattering of pictures, mostly depicting seascapes, hung on sky blue walls.
Owner Frederick suggested we sit where we wanted and gave us each a trifold menu which doubled as an in-house and takeout menu. Offerings were listed in categories representing when they might be eaten: breakfast, appetizers and lunch/dinner. I saw little difference among the items other than size. Since we had arrived somewhere between lunch and dinner, we disregarded categories and ordered according to whim.
I would have loved to have gone overboard and ordered shark and gilbaka (scaleless saltwater catfish, which can grow quite large). But I decided to save my more daring palate for another visit.
Most countries cannot afford the luxury of importing food; they rely on fruits, vegetables, meats and fish that are indigenous to the land and waters around them. The culinary excitement lies in the use of herbs, spices and cooking methods. Anyone can purchase an expensive filet, add a little salt and pepper, sear the meat on both sides and serve it. But a creative cook must be clever with a lowly piece of catfish, or chicken or goat.
For example, Companion from Middle School Days (aka CMSD) was intrigued with the name and ordered the Fried Banga Mary ($9/$13). He ordered the smaller portion (which in a trendy place would be referred to as a “small plate”). The oval dish arrived with eight 2-inch square pieces of crispy fried fish garnished with tiny rings of scallion stems and bits of raw white sweet onion. The coating was lightly seasoned and slightly spicy, but I wondered if a cream- or mayo-based sauce might have brought out a contrast otherwise lost. On the other hand, who am I to suggest an improvement to an otherwise perfect dish?
Guest appreciates jerk chicken, and Tiffany’s was a winner. Arriving with a mound of yellow rice sufficient to share, the three large pieces of spicy chicken were perfectly balanced in flavor and texture by the rice. Tiffany’s has mastered the art of making the American palate dance without singeing it.
Roti (originally from central India and called paratha) is equivalent to the unleavened bread of many other cultures. Made from flour, oil, salt and water, it is cooked on a flat hot griddle. We were served two folded roti wrapped to keep them warm. I love to eat the bread plain, stuffed into my mouth in an unabashed childlike manner. But it can be rolled with various meat or vegetable stuffings. My approach was simple: fold a small piece of roti into a scoop and sop up the gravy of my lamb curry ($8.50/$13.50). My smaller portion was more than adequate in size and I brought half of the fork-tender meat with potatoes home.
Like roti, lamb curry originated in India. The heat from garlic and curry (plus some combination of ginger, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, peppercorns, onions, turmeric, coriander, and garam masala) gives the sauce a substantial but not lethal kick.
Frederick apologized for not having dessert available the day we were there. His wife graciously came out of the kitchen to thank us. We assured them we would return in the near future.
The West Indies refers to the islands of the Bahamas, Barbados, Cuba, Jamaica, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Tiffany’s West Indian Restaurant
WHERE: 1331 State St., Schenectady, 12304; 518-280-1719
WHEN: Every day 7 a.m.-11 p.m.
HOW MUCH: $42.64 without tax and tip
MORE INFO: On-street parking, major credit cards accepted, noise level permits conversation, accessible, dine-in or takeout, delivery, catering.