Namaste: Cuisine of India and Nepal
Several years ago while leading my organization’s e-business marketing and communication effort at Intel, I had the great fortune of hiring a phenomenal Web developer recently arrived from India. In the process of filling out one of our complicated employment forms he transposed his name, writing his last name then his middle initial and first name instead of the way hinted at on the complicated form.
As a result, during the entire time he worked for us we all called him Kolli, his last name. He was too polite to tell us his first name is actually Srini. Over time Srini became more acculturated, maybe even a bit “Americanized” (he’s now a huge Dallas Cowboys fan), but he’s never lost his personal warmth, good humor and impeccable manners.
Politeness and great manners seem to be a hallmark of Indian people…or at least those in the service industries. When colleagues ask for a romantic dinner recommendation, I frequently suggest one of the area’s Indian restaurants where impeccably attentive service and consistently excellent food impart the effect of making diners feel like welcome royalty.
Most Indian restaurants, like my friend Srini, embody the spirit of a traditional Indian salutation, “Namaste” which is said while holding one’s hands pressed together near the heart with head gently bowed. Namaste is translated as “I bow to the divine in you,” a sign not only of respect but of deference in that the greeter recognizes not just good, but the fact that there is divinity in other people. It is something from which we oft unpolished and uncouth Americans can learn.
Namaste’s lunch buffet
Rio Rancho has a restaurant named for that most reverential of greetings. It opened in late July, 2008 in the small, age-worn strip mall which previously housed Tawan Thai cuisine and before that a number of other restaurants. It’s a seemingly cursed location in which restaurants seem destined to fail. If outstanding service and cuisine are portend success, Namaste has reversed the trend of failure and become a very popular dining destination in the City of Vision. Along with the incomparable Joe’s Pasta House and the superb Cafe Bella, Namaste belongs on the pantheon of the very best restaurants in the metropolitan area.
Namaste is owned by Shree Prasad Gurung who was a mainstay at the India Palace for several years before striking out on his own. His wife Sandhya and brother-in-law Hem are the ownership triumvirate responsible for preparing not only the cuisine of India, but several Nepalese dishes as well. The charming Sandhya still has family in Nepal which was affected by the devastating earthquakes of 2015.
Some of the buffet’s bounty at Namaste
It’s with increased rarity (at least in Albuquerque) that you find any restaurant which greets you before the door with irresistible aromas. In that respect, Namaste is indeed an anachronism because it does capture you before the door with wafting emanations that bid you welcome and which just may have a Pavlovian effect on your taste buds. Along with Siam Thai, it may be the most aromatically arousing restaurant in the Albuquerque area.
Similar to most Indian restaurants in the Duke City area, Namaste offers a very inexpensive for the quality lunch buffet. It’s not quite as Bacchanalian as the buffet at the now defunct India Palace, but it provides an excellent introduction to its diverse and delicious offerings. As much as you’ll enjoy the buffet, your dining experience is Namaste is incomplete if you don’t take it to the next level. That would be returning for dinner when the quality is an order of magnitude better. During dinner, the ambiance speaks of refinement and only part of that is attributable to the absence of diners who visit the buffet three or four times in one seating. The lights are subdued and tones are hushed in the evening.
Garlic Naan, the very best in Albuquerque (as good as my mom’s tortillas)
Among the appetizer selections on the buffet, you might find vegetable samosa, crisp patties stuffed with spiced potatoes and green peas. Samosas have reportedly been an Indian specialty since before the tenth century. They are delicious as is or dipped into one of the various chutneys. Namaste offers several excellent chutneys–onion, mint, tamarind and more–none of which are subtle in their impact on your taste buds. Flame imbibing New Mexicans will love the jalapeño chutney, a neon green amalgam of the fiery pepper, vinegar and other spices. The vinegar balances the heat of the jalapeño while the jalapeño cuts the tartness of the vinegar. It’s as good, if not better, than many salsas we’ve had.
Of course one of the best ways to enjoy the chutneys is with naan, the incomparable Indian flat bread which is a staple accompaniment to most hot meals in India. Naan bears some resemblance to pita bread and, like pita bread, is usually leavened with yeast. It is cooked in a tandoor, a cylindrical clay oven fired by charcoal where the temperature at the bottom is maintained at 800 degrees Fahrenheit. The tandoor oven is from which tandoori cooking derives its name.
The menu features several variations on the freshly baked white flour bread. Those include garlic naan in which the naan is garnished with minced garlic. There’s also cheese naan in which the white flour bread is, you guessed it, stuffed with cheese. Another intriguing naan is the kashmiri, freshly baked white flour bread stuffed with cashews, pistachios, raisins and cherries. At first glance you might think thin-sliced pizza or even lavosh, the flat, thin Armenian flat bread. After a bite or two, you might notice a semblance in flavor to the ubiquitous Christmas fruit cake. That’s because of the cherry and raisin influence which not only adds sweetness, but color to the naan. That sweetness isn’t overwhelmingly cloying like fruit cake; it provides a nice contrast and balance of flavors.
21 June 2015: Turophiles, those of us who love cheese in all its fetid and aromatic forms, know all about paneer, the soft, crumbly farmer’s cheese native to India. Who among us hasn’t enjoyed saag paneer (cooked spinach studded with cubed of fried paneer cheese) and mutter paneer (peas and farmer’s cheese in a tomato based sauce, spiced with garam masala)? Because it’s not offered on the buffet, fewer have enjoyed paneer pakora, slices of homemade cheese stuffed with mint and spices, wrapped in garbanzo bean batter and deep-fried. At four to an order, these golden-sheened beauties are absolutely delicious. Paneer isn’t nearly as “melty,” gooey and oozy as say, goat cheese and it’s not as sharp as even the mildest Cheddar, but it’s got a very pleasant and mild personality that couples well with the mint chutney.
Tandoori Fried Chicken and Meatballs
When you mention tandoori cooking, you’ve got to include tandoori chicken in the discussion. Namaste marinates its chicken in a fabulous array of exotic spices then broils it over mesquite in the tandoor oven. The mesquite imparts a smoky redolence to the chicken that renders it impossible to stop eating. Namaste’s tandoori chicken may just be the best we’ve had in Albuquerque. The dinner menu offers several tandoori specialties, all prepared in the cylindrical clay tandoori oven and fired by charcoal to a constant temperature at the bottom of 800 degrees Fahrenheit.
Several lamb dishes are prepared on the tandoori oven. Among them are lamb tikka kabob which is lamb marinated in herbs and spices and lamb seekh kabob, spicy ground lamb molded on skewers and broiled in the tandoor oven. The lamb on the tikka kabob is cut into slightly larger than bite-sized cubes. The lamb seekh kabob might is cylindrical in shape, like a short, fat cigar, and in texture might remind you of rolled up gyros meat. The plate on which the lamb dishes are presented arrives at your table with a sizzling flair. It is lined with grilled onions and peppers which lend to the flavor explosions. Both lamb dishes will convert even the most staunch non-lamb eaters. In part, that’s because none of the characteristic “gaminess” of lamb is evident, but also because both dishes are very well flavored and enjoyable to eat.
Chicken Tikka Masala: Boneless chicken baked in the tandoor with creamy tomato sauce and exotic herbs and spices
24 January 2011: The tandoori chicken is similarly delicious and also served two ways. The first is chicken tikka kabob, or delicately spiced boneless chicken breast cut into large pieces. This chicken is tender and perfectly seasoned. The second presentation is of tandoori chicken, a leg and thigh combination marinated and broiled over mesquite. Still the very best chicken dish on the menu is the chicken tikka masala, boneles chicken with creamy tomato sauce and exotic herbs and spices. Preparation of chicken tikka masala is a two-step process. First the chicken is baked in a tandoor then cooked in a thick, creamy “gravy” of tomato sauce, cream and spices. The charcoal tandoor oven imparts an unmistakably distinctive smoky flavor to the chicken while the creamy tomato sauce imparts a sweet piquancy to an absolutely marvelous dish.
24 January 2011: My very favorite vegetarian entree at any restaurant is mattar paneer, green peas with Indian farmer cheese (paneer) in a creamy gravy. Paneer is a fresh, unaged, non-melting cheese made by curdling heated milk with lemon juice or some other food acid. It’s not necessarily the type of cheese you’d want to snack on as you might a slice or two of Kraft singles, but it’s the perfect cheese for the creamy gravy seasoned to perfection. Mattar paneer is rich and utterly delicious, prepared to your level of piquancy. No one in New Mexico does it better than Namaste.
Mattar Paneer: Green peas and homemade cheese in gravy and touch of cream
You might also opt to make dinner an adventurous event by trying one of the menu’s six Nepali dishes. Santa Fe has had a Himalayan restaurant for years, but Nepali dishes in Albuquerque were scarce until Namaste. The Nepalese diet consists heavily of lentil and rice dishes along with vegetable curries and a side dish called anchar, which are pickled vegetables and fruits (tomato, mango, cucumber, etc.), much like a chutney. There are many similarities to Indian food in Nepalese cooking.
26 October 2008: It may surprise you to discover similarities to Chinese food as well. That’s especially true in Kathmandu where the most popular lunch and snack item served are steamed or fried vegetable and meat dumplings known as “Momo.” Namaste features both chicken and lamb momo. The lamb momo plate consists of ten dumplings stuffed with ground and spiced lamb served with a piquant and delicious tomato achar. It’s easy to see why this would be the most popular dish in Nepal. The only downer for me is that the achar is served cold and the momo just warm. Submerge the momo into the achar and it cools off quickly. Still, this is a minor inconvenience and should not deter you from trying a delicious entree.
21 June 2015: When the Gurungs moved to New Mexico, they soon fell in love with green chile and have been roasting two sacks per year of the best Hatch has to offer. it stands to reason that they’d eventually incorporate green chile into their menu. Over the years, the green chili (SIC) chicken curry has become one of the most popular dishes offered at Namaste. One of the reasons New Mexicans have adopted this dish as one of their own is that the green chile has plenty of heat, even more than the restaurant’s incendiary chicken vindaloo. The curry incorporates a variety of aromatic spices that waft toward your nostrils like a fragrant breeze, possessing a flavor profile that’s sweet, savory, piquant and addictive. It’s akin to a thick gravy punctuated with larger than bite-sized pieces of chicken.
21 June 2015: Meals at Namaste are extraordinary and you’ll savor each and every bite as you experience flavor combinations and taste explosions that will enrapt all ten-thousand of your taste buds. As challenging as it is to stop eating, make sure to save room for a dessert specialty that this restaurant prepares better than any other Indian restaurant of my acquaintance. It’s Gajar Ka Halwa, a sweet and dense confection made with carrots, butter and milk. Though the julienne carrots are served warm, they’re not mushy in the least, but retain a discernible crunchiness. Namaste adds shaved almonds for an even crunchier contrast. This is a rich dessert as good, if not better, than any carrot cake.
Green Chili Chicken Curry
You might notice that my rating for Namaste is the highest I’ve accorded to any Indian restaurant in New Mexico. Namaste may not be as big or ostentatious as its competition, but in my estimation, it’s much better. My friend and colleague Tushar Desai, a Bombay native and globetrotter who’s traveled extensively across the fruited plain as a project manager for Microsoft confirms this, saying Namaste is in the top three to five Indian restaurants at which he’s dined in North America. That’s exceedingly high praise from a true connoisseur whose opinion I value.
Gajar ka Halwa: Indian-style carrot cake with cashew
The only thing that could have improved our visits to Namaste would have been sharing our meal with Srini, who in his infinite politeness, tells me I can still call him Kolli as long as I call him friend.
1520 Deborah Road, S.E.
Rio Rancho, New Mexico
1st VISIT: 8 August 2008
LATEST VISIT: 21 June 2015
# OF VISITS: 9
COST: $$ – $$$
BEST BET: Naan, Kasmiri Naan, Lamb Momo, Mix Grill Tandoori, Gajar ka Halwa, Green Chili Chicken Curry, Mutter Paneer, Chicken Tikka Masala