I’ve eaten a lot of Indian food in my life, first the Anglicized type when I was growing up in Britain (where “curry” in its various iterations recently surpassed fish and chips as the national favorite); and then the American version in Manhattan, where my husband and I lived conveniently near Sixth Street’s Curry Row. We moved to the Valley before some of the city’s Indian restaurants began showcasing the more sophisticated aspects of their cuisine, so, as fans of the cooking, we were excited to hear that Cinnamon, the spot that opened on the outskirts of Rhinebeck last June, was introducing lesser-known regional dishes along with the usual roster.
Walking in on a quiet weeknight, we were greeted by spicy aromas, the soft strains of Indian music, and a smiling hostess. Peacock feathers in a tall vase are the splashiest touch in the dining room, where the walls are subdued spice colors (one of them cinnamon), the carpet a chili red, and the tablecloths buttery yellow. The overall effect is pleasingly restrained, and suggests that the emphasis is on fine dining rather than curry-in-a-hurry.
Owner Shiwanti Widyarathna and co-chef Sanjeewa Hearath
Chef Chaminda Widyarathna and his wife, Shiwanti, who serves as hostess and unraveler of the mysteries of the menu, are originally from Sri Lanka, and wanted to offer something out of the ordinary at Cinnamon. Chaminda traveled all over India studying regional cuisines, and the menu reflects that, mixing milder fare, lesser-known dishes, and the spicier preparations of southern India and Sri Lanka, where seafood plays a big part. We decided to try one familiar thing as a point of comparison, and otherwise sample dishes new to us.
We chose Kingfisher beers from the list of Indian ales (there are wines, too, and a full bar coming soon), and nibbled pappadams while we read the menu. Fresh Indian breads are part of the pleasure; we ordered a garlicky nan, brightened with flecks of cilantro, and a whole-wheat poori with an interesting chewy texture to accompany our appetizers.
The chef introduces more “exotic” dishes on his monthly specials menu. We chose one of the month’s appetizers: spinach and homemade-cheese dumplings called sham savera. Their appearance was the first surprise — they looked like plump pieces of sushi roll arranged in a little orange lake. The usual way to make the dumplings (I discovered later) is to wrap cooked, finely chopped, seasoned spinach around balls of grated paneer cheese and drop them into hot oil for a few seconds. Chaminda makes his in a sausage shape, and cuts it into chunks after the hot-oil dunking. Presentation is clearly not an afterthought for this chef. The orange lake was a tangy, tomato-honey sauce, and the “dumplings” were such a fragrant, velvety delight, I didn’t want to share.
Our other appetizer, calamari — a rarity on Indian menus — with bell peppers, garlic, and onions, got a nod of approval from Shiwanti, who was helping us navigate the offerings. Small, tender rings of squid, dipped in a light batter of breadcrumbs, wheat flour and egg whites, were crispy golden brown and came with a complex sauce that my husband declared “civilized heat,” rather than the straight-ahead chili taste of Fra Diavolo.
Indian treasure: Garam Halwa (carrot pudding with mango ice cream) is a cooling finale to Cinnamon’s exotic main fare
Chicken biryani, served with a refreshing yogurt and cucumber raita, was the classic rendering, with plenty of chicken chunks and excellent, saffron-scented basmati. It had a lovely fresh quality, as did all the food, and would be perfect for those who don’t care for a lot of spice. The shrimp dish, eral varuval, was more exciting. Good-sized prawns were “tempered,” as the menu says, with coriander, ginger, cumin, turmeric and other less identifiable spices. This, too, is a southern Indian dish, made with green chilies in a tomato sauce that’s traditionally fiery — and flagged on the menu with the “two chilis” warning. Shiwanti made a point of asking about the level of heat, and we negotiated it down to “medium.” The sauce was still on the hot side, but enjoyably so, and didn’t mask the taste of the juicy, super-fresh shrimp.
Our other main course, gosht masalawala, was another special of the month. The name means spicy meat; in this case boneless pieces of lamb, marinated with kasuri methi (fenugreek leaves) and dry spices, then cooked in the tandoor and served in a masala sauce. The only recipe for this that I found online during my mad, I’ll-make-it-at-home follow-up period was in Urdu, but the co-chef, Sanjeewa Hearath, told me it involves a blend of cashew paste, yogurt, mint, ginger, garlic, and coriander. I’d need more specific directions to recreate the tender and deeply flavored lamb in its deliciously zingy, gingery sauce. It was presented on a large, square white plate with curvy sides, with crossed asparagus spears anchoring a little mound of lightly spiced potatoes and cauliflower — elegant to behold as well as a real treat to eat.
Desserts are also pretty. Rice pudding is the classic favorite, but we passed in favor of a light, creamy, mango kulfi (ice cream) that makes a perfect, soothing finale for your tongue if you’ve been going to town on the spicy stuff.
Sham savera (spinach and cheese dumplings with tangy tomato-honey sauce)
Garam halwa — carrot pudding — was a “pudding” in the British sense of dessert, rather than the custardy thing we think of. It was grated carrot, sautéed briefly in ghee and sugar to punch up its natural sweetness, layered in a long-stemmed martini glass and topped with mango ice cream, a dollop of whipped cream, and a sprig of mint as the final flourish. It tasted healthy and wonderfully indulgent at the same time.
The regular menu lists eight or nine seafood dishes (including a halibut curry in a tangy tamarind sauce that I’ll be back for), a selection of chicken and meat preparations, and a range of vegetarian and vegan fare. There’s a lunchtime buffet on weekdays offering mostly mild dishes, and a special buffet on Sunday nights, when the chef presents regional dishes. At $14.95, it’s a real deal for aficionados or the adventurous. Prices are very reasonable in general, given the high quality and complexity of the cooking. The restaurant is situated on a stretch of Route 9, about five minutes or so from Rhinebeck — and it’s well worth the drive to take your taste buds where they’ve never been before.
Cinnamon Indian Cuisine
Open daily for lunch and dinner. Soups and appetizers $4.25-$9.95; entreés $12-$21.95; lunch buffet $13.95; Sunday night “visesh” (special) buffet $14.50