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Full-flavored Feast

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“How was it?” we asked a couple leaving the Kingston Indian Restaurant and Grill just as we were going in. “Good, good! Very fresh,” they replied. Fresh is a telling comment when applied to Indian restaurant dishes, many of which can survive advance preparation or a sojourn on the steam table without suffering, but are even more enjoyable when “fresh” is part of the equation.

The Kingston Indian Restaurant and Grill, which opened in late autumn, is a sibling of the six-year-old New Paltz Indian Restaurant and the late-lamented Pine Hill Indian Restaurant (the owners clearly like to get straight to the point with names). This newcomer is housed on a corner in Kingston’s historic Uptown District in a spot that was occupied by a Chinese joint for as long as anyone can remember.

The big, madeover space has none of the glitzy, clichéd Bollywood trappings. Instead, it’s all blonde wood flooring, cream walls above wood wainscot, and tables that are so well spaced it feels a little spare, even when the room is full. Large windows on two sides are softened by gauzy curtains, gathered to the side. But they and the few potted plants in a column down the center of the room aren’t quite equal to the task of warming the place up. It’s calm and pleasant, though, with low lights, and soft, flute-y Indian music drifting through the air. Watching the very polite, accommodating staff march back and forth across the expanse of floor to the kitchen, you figure they must walk 10 miles a day.

 

chicken tikka masalaEast Meets West: Chicken Tikka Masala — chicken roasted in a tandoor and served with a creamy red sauce — is one of the popular dishes spicing things up at a new Indian restaurant in Kingston

Photographs by Jennifer May

shrimp biryaniFor the Shrimp Biryani, the shellfish is sautéed with herbs, spices, and almonds

The menu, as at the New Paltz branch, is long and lists all the standards as well as some regional Indian and Bangladeshi specialties. You’ll find about a dozen each of lamb, beef, seafood, and chicken dishes, and 20 or so vegetable dishes. Aficionados will be happy to see a larger than usual array of breads.

We decided we’d check out popular dishes to take measure of the kitchen, starting with the assortment of appetizers. For religious reasons, the owners serve no alcohol, but they don’t mind if you bring your own, so my spouse went off in search of beer — a reliable accompaniment for this kind of food. By the time he came back, our appetizers had arrived along with a couple of pappadams (crispy lentil wafers) and a tray of condiments: a bright green, fresh coriander (or cilantro) sauce; a sweet/tart tamarind sauce, and a chunky onion chutney. We ordered additional condiments — all those flavors are part of the fun — and got a sour lime pickle; sweet mango chutney; and some raita, the soothing yogurt and cucumber sauce that refreshes your mouth after a spicy bite.

A word here about a widespread misperception that this food is all heat and heavy spices, which leaves many people fearful to even try it (it ranks very low on the list of favorites in the U.S.). There are fiery dishes like the vindaloos, and plenty of zesty fare, but it’s actually one of the more subtle, varied, and complex cuisines of the world. It’s also one that gives vegetarians plenty of choices — the majority of Indians eat no meat.

assorted appetizer plateFragrant flavors: The assorted appetizer plate features banana pakora, meat samosa, bhajia, pappadam, deep-fried eggplant, and potato

Cumin, ground coriander, tumeric, cinnamon, cloves, fresh ginger, fresh coriander, and garlic are the main spices used in various combinations for flavor, with cardamom, cloves, and peppers among those adding heat. If you’re a novice, ask for help navigating the menu, especially since the food is cooked as it should be, with the spices as part of the preparation rather than thrown in after the fact. (That said, you can ask for a little extra heat, if you like.)

A waiter zoomed over to open our beers without our having to ask, and we tucked into our appetizers. There were two of each, making it easy to share. The meat samosa, lightly spiced ground beef in a little deep-fried triangular pastry turnover, was our favorite; with the bhajia, a tasty onion fritter, as first runner-up. Slices of soft potato and eggplant both got the same treatment — breading and a dip in the deep fryer — and were fine, but more interesting after being dipped in one of the sauces. The banana pakora (another kind of fritter) was also fried and sweet (and more likely a plantain).

We also tried an appetizer called Indian Bird, a quail marinated in yogurt and spices and cooked in the hot clay oven called a tandoor. It sounded tempting, but it takes precise timing to bake such a small bird. This was a narrow miss and a little dry, but even if it had been perfectly turned out, the spices were a bit much for its delicate flavor.

Next time we go, I’ll try Chana Bhaji, a dish made with chickpeas and tomatoes and served with puffy, fried poori bread. A foodie friend raved about it as being far superior to the versions found in most Indian restaurants.

owner belayet khanRestaurant raja: Belayet Khan owns the Indian Restaurant and Grill in both Kingston and New Paltz

Chicken tikka is made the same way as the Indian Bird — marinated in yogurt, lightly spiced, and baked in the tandoor. It’s one of the most popular dishes (its cousin, chicken tikka masala, which adds a thick creamy red sauce, is the all-time favorite). Tikka means “pieces” in Punjabi (thank you, Google), and the large, boneless chunks were aromatic, slightly smoky, moist and tender, with a little more zing than usual, which I liked. All came sizzling hot, with fluffy rice and lightly sautéed onion and green peppers.

Biryani, the mild basmati rice dish, is another classic. We went for the chef’s version, a mix of lamb, beef, chicken and shrimp, dotted with peas, cauliflower, and golden raisins. That decision turned out to be a mistake, but only because it was evident right away that each meat’s flavor deserved to dominate in a dish of its own. All the same, it was delicious — the meats (and shrimp, in this case) perfectly cooked and the whole thing fragrant with saffron and ground almonds. As we ate, we scooped morsels up along with some naan (the soft, baked unleavened bread) and hot poori (the fluffy, fried version).

Given the reasonable prices, the scope of the menu, and the need to cozy things up, the best bet is to round up some friends, order a lot of different dishes to share, and make your own party. If you still haven’t tried this slightly exotic fare, go on a Saturday and sample the buffet for a mere $12.95. Or head there for a weekday lunch, when it’s only $8.95.

As we were going out the door, happy and sated, a couple coming in asked us how it was. “Good,” we replied. “And very fresh.” Pass it on.

Kingston Indian Restaurant and Grill
298 Wall St., Kingston
845-331-3611
Open daily for lunch and dinner
Appetizers $3.95-$7.95; entrées $10.95-$19.95; breads $2.50 to $4.95 for the stuffed ones

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