Curry Leaf – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Curry Leaf North & South Indian Cuisine

Leonard: Is it racist that I took you to an Indian restaurant?
Priya: It’s okay, I like Indian food.
Leonard: Or as you probably call it back home, food.
~
Big Bang Theory (Season Four, Episode 18)

Queen Rania of Jordan cautioned against judging “through the prism of our own stereotypes.”  Ill-founded stereotypes were very much in evidence after my team successfully landed an especially challenging project at Intel…and as with most stereotypes, they were based on faulty assumptions, overarching generalization and lack of experience.  When we deliberated where to celebrate our achievement, my suggestion that our repast be held at an Indian restaurant was met with such comments as “Indian food is…too spicy, too rich, too much curry, too vegetarian” and worse, it “causes heartburn and (to put it mildly) gastric distress.”  Prying more deeply revealed only one of my colleagues had ever actually ever tried Indian food.

In truth, when it comes to Indian food, if we don’t subscribe to such stereotypes, even the most open-minded among us tend to generalize about it.  Much as we do with Italian food, we compartmentalize Indian food as either “Northern” or “Southern,” generalizations which are inaccurate and which don’t do justice to one of the world’s great cuisines.  India is a very diverse country in which practically every province boasts its own unique cuisine.  Culinary taxonomists tell us there are 38 major kinds of cuisine in India, but my friend Kishore tells me there are local variations from village to village.

The Lunch Buffet is Spectacular!

Still, when we found out about the Curry Leaf, an Indian restaurant which opened its doors in August, 2016, we were elated at the prospect of a restaurant purporting to feature both Northern Indian cuisine and Southern Indian cuisine as well as a number of Indo-Chinese options.  Generalization goes out the window when our minds’ eye pictured spicier, more piquant entrees, the type of which aren’t common in Albuquerque whose Indian restaurants tend to focus on Northern Indian cuisine.  Even more rare in the Duke City is Indo-Chinese cuisine, the Indian adaptation of Chinese cooking techniques and seasonings.  Not since Paddy Rawal’s OM Fine Indian Dining has Albuquerque been able to enjoy the preternatural fusion of Indian and Chinese cuisines.

With owner Narenda Kloty at the helm, Curry Leaf has the pedigree to succeed where other restaurants might fail if endeavoring such broad offerings.  Mr. Kloty is no stranger to the Land of Enchantment having previously owned and operated Albuquerque’s much-missed Bombay Grill as well as Santa Fe’s India Palace.  Until recently, he also owned a restaurant in Milpitas, California in the heart of Silicon Valley.  Today his sole focus is on Curry Leaf, a magnificent restaurant whose appeal to New Mexicans will grow as savvy diners discover flavor profiles very similar to our own beloved cuisine.  He is a peripatetic presence at his restaurant, a true gentleman whose goal it is to ensure all diners have a great experience at Curry Leaf.

A very inviting and attractive ambiance

Though sporting a Montgomery Boulevard address, Curry Leaf is recessed from the busy artery and isn’t easily visible until you turn into the retail development in which it sits.   Ironically, it’s situated next door to the familiar space which for nearly three-and-a-half decades housed the India Kitchen, Albuquerque’s very first Indian restaurant.  The Curry Leaf’s rather humble exterior belies an expansive and attractive dining room.  Visit for lunch and your immediate view as you walk in will be of burnished copper vessels in which the day’s buffet offerings are kept warm for you.  The wall art is not only visually spectacular, it’s thought-provoking.  An incomplete drawing of Buddha, for example, may have you contemplate that man, too, is a work in progress.

If you love buffets, this one is among the very best in the metropolitan area.  Quite simply, it offers entree quality offerings at value prices.  In fact, there are several items on the buffet this blogger already considers the best in the city (yes, even better than at the fabulous Namaste).  After my first two visits, I’ve accorded a rating of “23” for Curry Leaf, a rating heretofore not bestowed upon any buffet restaurant.  There’s little doubt that rating will increase when we order off the menu (which isn’t available during the lunch hour: 11:30AM to 2:30PM daily).

From the buffet: Chicken Tiki Masala, Saag Paneer, Vegetable Pakora, Tandoori Chicken

Ah, that menu!  It’s magnificent!  The appetizers section alone offers several items you won’t find at any Indian restaurant in the Albuquerque area–sumptuous starters such as chili paneer (cubed Indian cottage cheese sauteeed with onions and bell peppers in a spicy chili sauce) and chili chicken (marinated, batter-fried chicken sauteed with onions and bell peppers in a spicy chili sauce).  Homemade bread choices include not only naan of several types, but roti, kulcha and poori.  Tandoori specialties are absolutely the best in the area because the tandoor ovens burn charcoal.  The soups, several of which are available on the buffet, are wonderful (and will hopefully be entered into the Roadrunner Food Bank Souperbowl event in 2017).  Other menu categories warranting exploration are rice, chicken, lamb and goat, seafood, vegetable, dosa, Indo-Chinese and desserts.

Among the “best in the city” offerings at Curry Leaf are garlic naan, one of several homemade breads available.  The intense heat (approaching 900-degrees Fahrenheit) of the tandoori oven fired with charcoal imparts a magnificent flavor to what is probably my favorite form of bread (even over my mom’s flour tortillas)   Thin yet fluffy, the naan is amazing, inviting you to dip it into the tamarind chutney with its sweet, sour and just slightly piquant flavor or the raita, a yogurt-based sauce with a blend of spices.  Then there’s the mint chutney, an Indian “salsa” with an intensely fresh flavor.  It goes without saying that the naan is wonderful without amelioration, too.

Sambal

If asked what the national food of England is, you’d probably answer fish and chips or Yorkshire pudding and roast beef.  In 2001, British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook British declared chicken tikka masala as the new national dish of the United Kingdom.  Restaurant-goers seem to agree as they’ve made it the most popular restaurant dish in the country.  Tikka, a Persian word for “bits and pieces” aptly describes the dish which showcases boneless chicken pieces in a creamy spiced tomato sauce.  Curry Leaf’s rendition is fantastic, so full-bodied, rich and delicious it warranted a second helping.  So did the Chicken Makhani, a dish sometimes called Indian butter chicken.  It’s a dish so good it should be registered as a repeat offender for deliciousness.

Ubiquitous in virtually every Indian restaurant’s buffet offering, tandoori chicken is a take-it-or-leave-it item for me, but not at Curry Leaf which serves the Duke City’s very best rendition.  What makes this chicken so much better than any other is the fact that the tandoor oven is heated with charcoal.  That charcoal penetrates deeply, imparting smoky sweetness to the chicken which is rendered a bright reddish-orange color by a spice blend that includes cayenne pepper, paprika and other spices.  The Colonel can have his blend of eleven herbs and spices.  This chicken is better than finger-licking good.

Garlic Naan

Regardless of culture, soup is one of the most gratifying dishes on the face of the Earth.  Indian soups are among the very best.  They’re diverse, healthful and delicious.  Curry Leaf includes at least two soups on the daily buffet.  You’ll be tempted to ferry the entire tureen of Madras Tomato Soup to your table though a ladle or two will have to do.  This tomato soup is made distinctive with the addition of coconut milk and spices.  This is unequivocally the very best tomato soup I’ve ever had.  Nearly as good is the Sambar, a vegetable soup with a piquant bite.  It’s fiery red in appearance with fresh vegetables for every spoonful.

Two other noteworthy buffet staples are the Saag Paneer and the Aloo Gobi.  Rumor has it that Popeye the sailor man emigrated to Indian when he heard about Saag Paneer, a rich, delicious dish of creamed spinach and cubes of soft farmer’s cheese.  If you’ve never enjoyed spinach, this dish will change your mind…and if there’s one vegetable even more reviled than spinach, it might be cauliflower.    Aloo Gobi (potatoes and cauliflower sauteed with chopped onions, garlic, ginger and tomatoes in a rich blend of mostly seed-based seasonings) presents cauliflower in the most delicious manner you’ve ever experienced this cruciferous vegetable.  Those seasons render this dish pleasantly piquant and superbly flavored.

From the Buffet: Madras Tomato Soup, Aloo Gobi, Saag Paneer, Chicken Makhani, Tandoor Chicken

As wonderful as the buffet is, savvy diners should also visit Curry Leaf for dinner when the menu really opens up with spicy deliciousness unlike any you’ll experience in the Duke City.   Now, if only Curry Leaf offered breakfast…

Curry Leaf
6910 Montgomery Blvd, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 881-3663
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 9 October 2016
1ST VISIT: 1 October 2016
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 23
COST: $$
BEST BET: Garlic Naan, Mango Lassi, Tandoori Chicken, Chicken Tiki Masala, Saag Paneer, Vegetable Pakora, Dosa

Curry Leaf Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Namaste Restaurant – Rio Rancho, New Mexico

Namaste: Incomparable Indian and Nepalese Cuisine in Rio Rancho

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.

A Rare Sight: Every Seat In The Restaurant Not Taken

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.

Bounteous, Beauteous Buffet – The Best in New Mexico

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.

Sandhya, the heart and spirit of Namaste, Poses With a Painting of Her Done by Her Aunt

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.

Paneer Pakora

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.

My Kim’s Buffet Plate: Mostly Tandoori 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 Vindaloo

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

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.

Lamb Momo

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.  In 2015, Albuquerque The Magazine accorded this dish a “Hot Plate” award signifying its recognition as one of the “most interesting, special and tasty dishes around.”

24 December 2015: Manhattan Chef Dan Barber likes to say that “clean plates don’t lie.”  It’s an adage that describes all my dining experiences at Namaste.  Only the combination platters challenge fulfilling Barber’s adage.  Namaste offers five combination platters, each as delicious as they are bountiful.  Each platter comes with your choice of dal (a yellow lentil soup) or chicken with rice soup as well as your choice of plain or garlic naan.  As if this isn’t enough, dessert is also provided, either Kheer (rice and cream), Gulab Jamun (fried dough in sweet syrup), Gajar ka halva (described below) or mango custard depending on which of the five platters you order. 

Combination Platter

Non-Vegetable Dinner Combination Platter

My favorite of the combination platters is the Non-Vegetarian dinner combination (Chicken Tikka Masala, Shrimp Sang, Lamb Curry).  This platter should come with a warning label.  Not only is it exceptionally delicious, it features three of the richest entrees on the menu.  You’re well advised to temper the richness with the Raita, an Indian yogurt and cucumber condiment which soothes your palate and stands up to the creamy richness of the entrees.  Indian cuisine isn’t always noted for its contributions to seafood, but the shrimp sang  dish warrants plenty of love.  This dish features several large shrimp nestled in a rich pureed spinach and cream sauce.  The sweet shrimp snap when you bite into them and provide a nice contrast to the rich creaminess of the dish.  It’s my favorite of the three entrees in this combination platter, but not by much.  All three are outstanding! 

30 July 2016: Ask the dear-hearted Sandhya to recommend a dish and she’s likely to tout the incendiary deliciousness of the chicken vindaloo.  Vindaloo dishes didn’t originate in India, but in Europe and weren’t originally intended to be piquant, but garlicky-vinegary.  The transformation to a fiery dish is rather recent, but there’s no going back.  The blends of spices and seasonings that give Vindaloo its signature heat are here to stay.  There’s an Indian restaurant in New York City which prepares a vindaloo dish so potent that chefs wear gas masks to protect them from the heat level.  Namaste’s chicken vindaloo isn’t nearly that piquant, but it does have a very pleasant burn.  Moreover, it’s got an amazing flavor.  It’s no wonder it’s Sandhya’s favorite dish.

Green Chili Chicken Curry

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.

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, one of my favorite desserts in the world

On November 14th, 2015, Namaste launched its second location in the Albuquerque metropolitan area.  Located at 110 Yale in the University of New Mexico area, the new location will bring the best Indian food in the state to a wider demographic.  With its proximity to a wider base, look for Namaste to earn “best Indian food” perennially.   Namaste’s walls are festooned by framed certificates naming it among Albuquerque’s top five Indian restaurants by Albuquerque The Magazine voters.  Methinks with greater proximity to a wider voting populace, you can replace the the term “among the best” with “the very best.”

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.

Namaste Restaurant
1520 Deborah Road, S.E.
Rio Rancho, New Mexico
(505) 896-3126
Web Site | Facebook Page
1st VISIT: 8 August 2008
LATEST VISIT: 30 July 2016
# OF VISITS: 13
RATING: 24
COST: $$ – $$$
BEST BET: Naan, Kasmiri Naan, Lamb Momo, Mix Grill Tandoori, Gajar ka Halwa, Green Chili Chicken Curry, Mutter Paneer, Chicken Tikka Masala, Non-Vegetable Combination Platter, Chicken Vindaloo

Namaste Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

The Safari Grill – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

The Safari Grill launched in June, 2014

“The wild dogs cry out in the night
As they grow restless longing for some solitary company
I know that I must do what’s right
Sure as Kilimanjaro rises like Olympus above the Serengeti
I seek to cure what’s deep inside, frightened of this thing that I’ve become.”
~ Africa by Toto

Shrouded in mist and steeped in myth and mystery, Mount Kilimanjaro attracts visitors from all over the world.  Often called “the roof of Africa,” the towering, snow-capped, conically-shaped mountain is the crown jewel of the United Republic of Tanzania.  At 19,340 feet, the magnificent freestanding peak commands the skies, looming over the plains of the bushveld savannah like a majestic sovereign keeping vigilant watch over her people. 

Majestic as it may be, Mount Kilimanjaro is far from Tanzania’s sole travel destination.  The country boasts of dozens of beautiful white sandy beaches such as those found in the island of Zanzibar.  A number of national parks, conservation areas and game reserves allow visitors to get up close and personal with lions, leopards, elephants, cheetah, giraffes, zebras,  jackals and thousands of migratory birds.  Tanzania is also one of Africa’s most popular safari destinations.

The Restaurant’s Interior Might Just Transport you to Tanzania

Now, safaris need not entail hunting animals in their natural habitat and trophies need not be stuffed and mounted.   Set against a backdrop of unrivaled natural beauty makes Tanzania one of the greatest wildlife photography safari destinations on the planet.  Photography safaris reward participants with an incomparable portfolio of wildlife and landscape images they’ll cherish for a long time. 

Whatever your reasons are for visiting Tanzania, you’ll also find the cuisine to be memorable and delicious.  The food culture of Tanzania is a fusion of Indian, Middle Eastern, and local African ingredients and cooking techniques. Knowing this, you might not do a double-take when you see chapatti and samosas on a menu at a Tanzanian restaurant and you’ll certainly discern the spices and aromatics of India when you taste the curries.

A very generous sample includes Samosas, Zucchini Chips, Calamari and a Variety of Sauces

The spirit and cuisine of Tanzania are alive and well in Albuquerque thanks to the June, 2014 launch of The Safari Grill on Albuquerque’s burgeoning far west side.  The Safari Grill occupies the space which previously housed California Pastrami, The Chili Stop and the Bombay Grill.  If the exterior architecture seems more befitting of a Chinese restaurant than an African-Indian restaurant, that’s because the edifice’s original tenant was indeed a long defunct Chinese eatery. The Safari Grill occupies the western-most section of the building, a small space accommodating but a handful of tables.

Before there was a Safari Grill, there was the Safari Street Grill, a food truck often parked at some of the city’s breweries which don’t serve food.  The Safari Street Grill gained a significant following, in some cases becoming the primary reason some patrons visited those breweries.  While not all mobile eatery operators aspire to diversifying their offerings by launching a brick and mortar operation, after nearly five years, the Safari Street Grill left the streets and settled into a cozy space.

Goat Stew with Rice

It’s not much of an exaggeration to say the Safari Grill’s new digs aren’t significantly larger than its mobile predecessor.  In a Lilliputian space offering limited seating, the Safari Grill has already established a fairly robust take-out operation.  Your first visit, however, should be an eat-in venture so you can interact with one of the most friendly and attentive families to operate a restaurant in Albuquerque.  The family is justifiably proud of the cuisine of their Tanzanian homeland and will bend over backwards to ensure you have a great dining experience. 

Your first visit should also include intrepid friends who’ll order something adventurous and don’t mind sharing their bounty.  For our inaugural visit we were joined by Hannah and Edward, themselves prolific food bloggers as well as nonpareil podcasters. Together we set off on a dining safari, exploring and experiencing as wide a swathe across the menu as we possibly could.  A fairly impressive menu belies the restaurant’s diminutive digs.

All beef short ribs

True to the restaurant’s name, featured fare includes a number of char-grilled entrees, each created from fresh prime cuts of meats marinated for more than 24 hours to ensure the peak of flavor.  For fire-eaters, sauces are applied before, during and after the grilling process to ensure the meats “bring the heat.”  Unless otherwise requested, all meats are cooked to Medium.   

12 July 2014: Your introduction to your dining safari should begin with a sampler platter, one featuring each of the three Indian-style samosas: veggie, marinated chicken and beef.   Samosas are delectable, triangle-shaped savory pastries stuffed with a variety of spiced ingredients and having a delightfully crispy exterior.  The Safari Grill serves them with a variety of housemade sauces: green chile, red chile, tamarind chutney and coconut chutney.  All three samosas are a real treat either by themselves or with the sauces, among which the green chile packed a piquant punch.

Curry Corn

12 July 2014: Our sampler platter also included zucchini chips served with Ranch dressing and calamari served with cocktail sauce.  Shaped rather like Coke bottle tops, the zucchini chips are lightly battered then fried to a golden hue.  Though not quite al dente, the zucchini chips are moist and crisp.  The calamari strips are light and delicate, wholly unlike the rubbery ringlet-shaped calamari.  The only appetizer we didn’t sample were the tandoori-style “elevated” wings. 

12 July 2014: For many people the world over, stew is the ultimate comfort food.  The special of the day during our inaugural visit was goat stew with rice, a rich, filling and nicely spiced exemplar of comfort food stews.  Long and slow simmering renders the goat meat falling-off-the-bone tender.  That’s an absolute necessity because there are a lot of bones in goat stew.  This allows for long, loving lingering of every morsel.

Indian-Style Fish and Chips with Sliced Sauteed Potatoes

12 July 2014: The all-beef short ribs, available in quantities of three, six or a dozen, will probably remind you of Korean beef kalbi without the sweet barbecue sauce.  The Safari Grill’s short ribs are marinated and seasoned to imbue them with bold, addictive flavors.  You’ll enjoy gnawing on each meaty morsel of these finger-licking ribs though it may take more than a half dozen to sate you.  Fortunately all entrees come with your choice of one side. 

12 July 2014: The consensus best side from among the four we enjoyed was the curry corn.  While corn is often thought of as a summer dish, it’s transformed into a dish for all seasons with the addition of a hearty curry.  Each sweet corn niblet is punctuated with mildly spicy, wonderfully pungent and delightfully aromatic curry.  Curry corn is an idea whose time has come.  It’s a wonderful departure from buttered corn.

Curried Chickpea and Potato Stew with Lays Potato Chips

12 July 2014: The Safari Grill’s unique twist to classic “fish and chips” features two filets of somewhat thickly-battered salmon fused with East Indian flavors served with lightly pan-fried, seasoned sliced potatoes.  Perhaps attributable to high heat, the salmon is just a bit on the desiccated side, but it’s still light and delicate.  The sliced sauteed potatoes are a highlight, especially with a little bit of the green chile. 

12 July 2014: As a precocious child, I often experimented with food, adulterating dishes otherwise lacking in personality with sundry ingredients.  Crumbled potato chips on pinto beans was among my favorites.  I’d long thought only children liked crumbling potato chips on their food, but at the Safari Grill, one dish actually encourages it.  Who are we to argue with savvy cooks.  That dish is the curried chickpea and potato stew which is actually served with a side of Lays potato chips.  The staff calls it an Indian Style Frito Pie.  You’ll call it surprisingly good.

Southwest Burger, Salsa and Chips and Curry Corn

14 November 2014: While my friend Larry McGoldrick, the professor with the perspicacious palate and his assistant, the dazzling Deanell, have enjoyed the Safari Grill’s exotic offerings, they also rave about the burgers.  All too often international restaurants don’t infuse their nation’s culinary elements and personality into American food favorites such as burgers.  As a result, burgers at international restaurants tend to either mimic burgers you can get at virtually every American restaurant or they fall short. 

At the Safari Grill, the hand-formed ground beef patties are infused with Tanzanian seasonings that liven up the beef which is then char-grilled to the level of juicy deliciousness and topped with roasted green chile and thinly-sliced avocado all deposited gently on a toasted brioche bun. Very thinly-sliced onion, tomatoes and lettuce are served on the side along with ramekins of mustard, ketchup and mayonnaise, none of which are needed. This is a burger you can enjoy “competition style” with only beef, bun and green chile.  It’s an excellent burger with more personality and flair and best of all, it doesn’t detract from the high standards of New Mexico’s sacrosanct green chile cheeseburgers.

Fruit Cup Sorbet

12 July 2014: The menu features only one dessert, but it’s a good one. The fruit cup sorbet dessert features fruit “cups” made from actual fruit shells: a pineapple shell for pineapple sorbet, a coconut shell for coconut sorbet, a lemon shell for pomegranate sorbet and a hollowed-out orange half for mango sorbet. Unlike some sorbets, these taste like the fruits they’re supposed to be. They’re served chilled and provide a wonderful respite from the sweltering summer heat.

With a little imagination, the Safari Grill could become your own culinary safari adventure on the Serengeti with an exotic and delicious cuisine all adventurous diners will enjoy.

The Safari Grill
3600 Hwy 528, Suite B
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 14 November 2014
1st VISIT: 12 July 2014
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 22
COST: $$
BEST BET: Appetizer Sampler (Samosas, Calamari, Zucchini Chips), Goat Stew, Curry Corn, Curried Chickpea and Potato Stew, Fruit Cup Sorbet, Indian-Style Fish and Chips, All Beef Short Ribs, Southwest Burger

The Safari Grill on Urbanspoon

Paddy Rawal’s OM- Fine Indian Dining – Los Ranchos de Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Behind the glass, Paddy Rawal’s OM – Fine Indian Dining Restaurant

It wasn’t New Mexico’s Chamber of Commerce winter weather that enticed Chef Pramad “Paddy” Rawal to remain in the Land of Enchantment. In fact, when he first landed at Albuquerque’s International Sunport, he wondered if he had gotten on the correct flight. Albuquerque was as frigid as his home in Michigan which he had left just hours prior. Attired in clothing more appropriate for a balmy spring day, Paddy had certainly not anticipated the winter snap that kept New Mexicans indoors for several days on that uncommonly cold December in 2010.

Paddy was in New Mexico to visit his artist friends Dick and Jane in Santa Fe. Michigan transplants themselves, his friends had long tried to influence Paddy to leave the Wolverine State and open up a restaurant in Santa Fe. They wined and dined their guest and did their best to point out the charms of the capital city, but Mother Nature would not cooperate. Then they took him to a couple of New Mexico’s most highly regarded Indian restaurants. That’s when he came to the conclusion that what passes for good Indian food in New Mexico wasn’t good enough for his friends. Four months later, Paddy opened up Raaga Fine Indian Dining in Santa Fe.

The interior of Paddy Rawal’s OM Fine Indian Dining Restaurant in Albuquerque

From day one Raaga has been a huge critical success in The City Different, beloved not only by a very grateful Dick and Jane, but by Santa Fe’s savvy, well-traveled dining public. The feeling is very much mutual. Paddy has fallen in love with Santa Fe and sees himself as potentially retiring in New Mexico. Considering the well-traveled Paddy has worked as a chef in India, Egypt, Dubai, Australia and Michigan, that’s quite a testament to enchantment and to much better weather than what first welcomed him to the state.

With the November 1st, 2012 launch of Paddy Rawal’s OM Fine Indian Dining Restaurant, Duke City diners have begun to experience for themselves what Santa Fe diners now know and what East Lansing diners have been missing since Paddy closed his two Michigan eateries. OM may be in a class of its own in New Mexico when it comes to fine Indian dining! A number of infatuated patrons, including Larry McGoldrick, the professor with the perspicacious palate, have already become confirmed habitues. In short order, OM will have legions of pleased patrons.

Chef Paddy Rawal brings Ancho Amchur Crusted Tandoori Chicken to our Table

The main reason, of course, is the cuisine. Boasting of rich, intricately flavored dishes prepared with the finest spices, freshest herbs and highest quality ingredients, OM takes Northern Indian fare to new heights, even incorporating local Southwest elements as well as Chinese dishes to create imaginative and sophisticated fusions of deliciousness.   There are two aspects of Indian cuisine at which OM exceeds.  One is in the use of spices, the true legacy of India’s culinary heritage.  While the primary function of spices is to enhance the flavor of food, it is experience and tradition which determine their optimal use, whether it be to season food, enhance its texture or introduce color.  The other aspect is in the preparation of sauces, each one designed to bring out the finest qualities of the ingredients on which they’re used.  

The other reason OM will, in short order, become a Duke City favorite is Paddy Rawal himself. A peripatetic presence, Paddy is the consummate host and a veritable whirling dervish who is seemingly everywhere at once. He wears the stains of spilled sauces on his chef’s coat as a badge of honor, evidence that he himself is preparing the incomparable cuisine himself. Expect him to check up on you frequently to ensure your dining experience is as good as it can be. Paddy is a very engaging, charming and modest fellow, quick to turn compliments about his cooking into something praiseworthy he noticed about you. Interacting with satisfied customers is imperative to him.

Stuffed Dried Fruit Naan and Chana Chaat with Mango Lasi

The OM menu offers an exciting culinary journey into superior taste and flavor, into subtle nuances and exotic complexity, into delicate spice blends and rich, creamy sauces.   All dishes can be ordered mild, medium, hot, hell or any variation thereof (medium plus for example). A daily lunch buffet–at a ridiculously low price considering the quality–features various vegetarian, vegan and meat dishes as well as rice, salad, naan and dessert.  Now if you’re sniggering at the seemingly contradictory notion of a fine dining restaurant offering a buffet, you’ll salute Paddy’s prowess at making all-you-can-eat a sublime offering.  With a menu that showcases vegetarian and vegan options as well as seafood and meat entrees, there truly is something for everyone at OM.

12 November 2012:  Thus far, Albuquerque’s favorite OM appetizer is chana chaat, one of the most popular of Indian street foods and not only because it can be served as a side dish, snack or salad. OM’s rendition combines chickpeas, cucumber, blueberries, whole wheat crisps, tomatoes, mint chutney and sweetened yoghurt. It’s a refreshing adventure in bright and lively flavors and textures, an absolute delight because so many flavors coalesce on your taste buds.  Those flavors are both contrasting and complementary, flavors that play off each other.

Ancho Amchur Crusted Tandoori Chicken (Bone-In Chicken, a Thigh and a Breast)

My mom, a tortillera in the most traditional sense  may disown me for this, but I’ve come to prefer naan to tortillas, even those she prepares with love on her seasoned comal.  OM offers nine varieties of naan, a flat, leavened bread made of white flour and baked in a tandoor; and roti, its wheat counterpart which is cooked on  a flat griddle. Now, three baskets of naan is far too many for a meal for two, but when you can’t make up your minds, order to your hearts’ content because you’ll have wonderful naan for later. Three distinctive varieties with which we fell in love are the rosemary-olive oil naan, stuffed cheese naan and stuffed dried fruit naan.  Each has its unique flavor profile with the commonality being a pinto pony-like char and a light burnishing with clarified butter (ghee).  Whether you nosh on the naan, dip it into a chutney or use it to sop up a superb sauce, you’ll savor every bite.

While Ancho and Amchur in combination may sound like a suppressed sneeze, they’re actually spices which Paddy employs.  New Mexicans are more familiar with Ancho, a powder made from a type of chile that lends a rich, subtle piquancy to foods.  Amchur, a greenish-yellowish powder of dried mangoes, lends the quality of fruity-sweetness, but not to a cloying degree.  The qualities of these two complementary spices are well in evidence on the Ancho-Amchur Crusted Tandoori Chicken.  The spices penetrate deeply into the bone-in thigh and breast, imparting a slight piquancy and tanginess to the tandoor grilling.  As if the moist, tender, delicious chicken isn’t wonderful enough, OM includes a sauce which also utilizes those spices.  It makes a terrific dipping sauce for the chicken or for the naan.

Seafood Korma (Scallops, Shrimp, Mahi Mahi, Cashew Cream Sauce)

Korma Sutra might be an appropriate descriptor for the Seafood Korma which just may have a foodgasm effect on your taste buds. Korma, a Northern Indian specialty, is a mild and creamy curry sauce with a distinctively rich, almost silky flavor.  The basis for Korma is a mixture of yoghurt, cream and pureed cashews blended with toasted spices.  OM prepares it to your specified level of piquancy, however, ask for any potency beyond  medium and you risk degrading the rich, complex flavors of the spice and sauce meld.  The seafood–scallops, shrimp and mahi mahi–is slowly simmered in the sauce so it’s infused with flavor.  This may well be the most memorable Korma dish I’ve had, besting my previous favorite from an Indian restaurant in London.  The portion size is generous so you’ll be taking some home.  You’ll luxuriate in the aromas that fill your kitchen.

Desserts, if you manage to save room for them, are outstanding!  The carrot pudding (halwa), a wonderfully unique dessert composed of grated carrots and ground nuts prepared in butter and boiled milk then lightly sweetened with raisins, is my early favorite.  Served warm, it showcases the natural sweetness of carrots while removing any residual bitterness.  At the other end of the spectrum texturally is mango kulfi, an Indian ice cream that is more dense and “more frozen” than American ice creams.  Besides mango, the most pronounced flavor comes from sweetened condensed milk complemented with cardamom.

Carrot Pudding and Mango “Kulfi” (House-made ice cream)

18 February 2013: Paddy pays tribute to the Land of Enchantment with a stuffed Poblano, a New Mexican-Indian fusion appetizer served with a side of mint-coriander chutney.  You’ll recognize the “innards” as the contents with which Indian Samosas are stuffed: spiced mashed potatoes and peas.  The Poblano barely registers on the Scoville Scale of piquancy, but the chutney seems to bring out whatever heat is inherent with the pepper.  While this is a nice dish, my native pride would have preferred a nicely roasted New Mexico Hatch green chile. 

As noted above, OM specializes in naan, the wonderful Indian flat bread prepared in a tandoor.  Roti is the whole wheat alternative, a wedge-shaped bread often found in Malaysian restaurants, too.  OM’s roti is quite good though not as moist and buttery as the naan.  Still, it’s not a bread any diner would kick off their plate.  As with naan, the roti goes very well with chutneys, especially the tamarind.

Stuffed Poblano with Mint-Coriander Chutney

Stuffed Poblano with Mint-Coriander Chutney

OM’s menu includes a number of Indian-Chinese fusion dishes.  Ask Paddy why he would combine the flavors of two ancient culinary traditions and he will remind you he’s a chef–not a chef who specializes in Indian food, but a chef formally trained in more than ten different cuisines.  He hopes someday to launch, perhaps in San Francisco, a restaurant showcasing a fusion of Italian and Indian food.  Paddy has already conceptualized several dishes he hopes to introduce to intrepid diners. 

You don’t have to be an adventurous diner to appreciate OM’s Chilli (SIC) Chicken, boneless chicken sauteed and cooked with ginger and garlic then finished in a tomato-based Szechuan sauce.  Appearances can be very deceptive.  At first glance you might think the crimson sauce will be as cloying as most Chinese sweet and sour sauces, but that’s certainly not the case.  The sauce has a savory-tart flavor profile, emphasizing the sour (but not overly so) aspects of sweet and sour.  The all white meat boneless chicken is tender and moist.  Vegetables–red and green peppers, onions–are perfectly prepared. 

Chilli Chicken

Chilli Chicken

Diners who enjoy Thai curry, but who don’t necessarily appreciate the qualities of Indian curry will almost certainly enjoy OM’s Chicken Madras, perhaps the one dish most responsible for winning over converts to Indian cuisine.  Named for the city of Madras, it’s a dish as varied as the hundreds of recipes from which it’s prepared.  This hearty tomato-based curry is redolent with the spices of curry leaves, ginger, mustard, coconut milk and peppercorn.  It can be prepared to the degree of heat you desire, but too much piquancy and you might not appreciate the richness and sophistication of the flavors.  Chicken Madras may be the perfect winter entree, as heart-warming an entree as your favorite winter soup. 

OM, by the way, is not an abbreviation.  It represents a mystical Sanskrit sound of Hindu origin, a sacred chant considered the “primordial seed” of the universe.  Om is considered the “root mantra” from which all other mantras emerge.  Ancient sages believed that through chanting om, one can experience the infinite within themselves. 

Chicken Madras

Chicken Madras

In 2012, Raaga was selected as one of the best new restaurants in America by Kunda Eats, the only restaurant in New Mexico honored. It will surprise absolutely no one if OM garners a similar accolade in 2013.  Duke City diners will beat a path to this restaurant, already one of the best in the city in any genre–and the path is familiar, too.  OM is located at the former site of Annapurna Ayurvedic Cuisine.

Paddy Rawal’s OM – Fine Indian Dining
7520 4th Street, N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 18 February 2013
1st VISIT: 12 November 2012
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 24
COST: $$ – $$$
BEST BET: Chana Chaat, Ancho Amchur Crusted Tandoori Chicken, Seafood Korma, Carrot Pudding, Mango Kulfi, Mango Lassi,

Paddy Rawal's 'OM'- Fine Indian Dining on Urbanspoon

Dragonfly Cafe & Bakery – Taos, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Dragonfly Cafe & Bakery in Taos, New Mexico

In 1989, the tarantula hawk wasp was designated the official state insect of New Mexico, joining the roadrunner (state bird), whiptail lizard (state reptile),  spadefoot (state amphibian), Sandia Hairstreak (state butterfly),  Rio Grande Cutthroat Trout (state fish) and the black bear (state animal) as official symbols of our great state.  Ostensibly the state legislature put aside partisan politics and selected these symbols after carefully weighing all options.  A case could certainly have been made for the dragonfly to represent New Mexico.

 Not only is the dragonfly a ubiquitous presence–flitting fluidly and gracefully like tiny fairies attired in wardrobes of many colors–they are omnipresent in local lore and legend.  In The Boy Who Made Dragonfly A Zuni Myth retold by New Mexico’s eminent author Tony Hillerman, the dragonfly represents a messenger between children and the gods.  The Zuni consider the dragonfly a shamanistic creature with supernatural powers while to the Navajo, the dragonfly represents pure water.

The front dining room at Dragonfly

Anyone who’s ever observed these multi-colored frequent fliers as they perform such spectacular aerial feats as loop-the-loops and flying backwards can’t help but be held spellbound by their grace and beauty.  It’s no wonder so many birdwatchers have  become dragonfly watchers that dragonflies have come to be known as “the birders’ insect.”  Spellbound is a good term for describing the Dragonfly Cafe And Bakery in Taos about which Larry McGoldrick, the professor with the perspicacious palate advises, “don’t even think about eating breakfast/brunch anywhere else.”

The Dragonfly Cafe and Bakery was founded in 1998 by Karen Todd, a transplanted Chicagoan with decades of experience in restaurants and bakeries.  A world traveler and culinary student, Karen is intimately acquainted with the cuisine of many cultures, influences of which are apparent in her restaurant’s eclectic menu.  On Monday nights, the Dragonfly offers an East Indian menu while on Wednesdays, tapas and wine flights are featured fare. She calls her delightful slice of gustatory heaven a “European-style cafe and bakery.”   That’s especially accurate in that the Dragonfly is the type of community gathering place in which friends congregate for good food, good conversation and good times.  In the winter they cozy up next to the adobe fireplace in the front dining room and in the summer, they enjoy the verdant flora, bubbling fountains and occasional dragonfly in the courtyard.

A steaming bowl of kale and potato soup

The Dragonfly prides itself in using the highest quality ingredients–procured locally and grown organically when available–and hormone- and antibiotic-free dairy and non-cured meats.  Seasonal produce is picked fresh from the chef’s garden or is produced by small, local growers.  In the off-season, produce is preserved and pickled for year-round use.  Included among the restaurant’s diverse staples are kimchee, smoked fish, mushrooms, eggplant, corned beef buffalo and an award-winning granola.  The Dragonfly has a full-service coffee bar with an assortment of gourmet Mighty Leaf teas, organic soy milk and house-made chai tea. 

As with other Taos restaurants, the Bohemian spirit is alive and well at the Dragonfly, a cafe which is both homey and unconventional.  It’s relaxed and informal with a “laissez faire” element that appeals to the counter-culturalist remnants of the 60s but won’t turn off the corporate suits–or my old-fashioned 82-year-young mom who managed to find something to love amidst a menu she found a bit strange.  Most will enjoy the colorful confines of the 1920s bungalow style adobe which originally served as a family home complete with gardens, livestock and an orchard on the back of the property.  

Bibimbop: Two eggs over easy with brown rice, vegetables, kim chee, scallions and garlic chili sauce

In May, 2002, it wasn’t the Dragonfly Cafe & Bakery’s culinary diversity which was on display, but its mastery of Southwest-inspired dishes.  The event was the Food Network’s Food Nation program hosted by chef glitterati Bobby Flay who was in town to celebrate northern New Mexico culture.   Chef-owner Karen Dodd feted the superstar chef with an hors d’oeuvres menu which included such savory starters as tiny calabacitas cups bulging with green chile and roasted red peppers; fresh yellow corn and oregano goat cheese and red chile mousse daubed on garlic crostini; lamb and green onion brochettes partnered to a red chile yogurt dipping sauce and smoked trout dotted with watercress and aïoli on white corn tortillas.  Sumptuous sweets included cornmeal-piñon-orange shortbread; red chile-infused chocolate truffles; and apricot brown butter bars. Flay was effusive in his appreciation.

The daily menu may not be quite as Southwest-centric, but it is no less exciting.  On the date of our inaugural visit, the lunch menu was wonderfully multifarious, a deliciously diverse melange of Korean, Greek, New Mexican, Moroccan and Cajun dishes.  The dinner menu we perused is even more exciting, not a carbon copy of the lunch menu albeit with higher prices and slightly bigger portions.  The breakfast and brunch menus are highly regarded by my friend Larry McGoldrick whose recommendation you can trust.

Gyros: Marinated lamb with tzatziki sauce, hummus, tomato, red onion, cucumber, olives, feta and pita bread

Because our inaugural visit was on a blustery winter day, a comforting bowl of soup was in order.  The soup of the day was a kale and potato soup, a variation on the traditional Portuguese caldo verde.  Our server apprised us that the soup was spicy in a manner reminiscent of garam masala, a spice blend that’s really the heart of many Indian dishes.  A brimming bowl arrived at our table steaming hot with tangles of kale floating atop a fragrant vegetable broth redolent with a bouquet of exotic spices.  The soup’s fragrance foretold the deliciousness of the heart-warming soup.

One of the most intriguing items on the menu was a unique interpretation of a dish which made my top ten list of dishes I had in 2011–bibimbap, a Korean dish which literally translates to “mixed meal” in part because it’s constructed from sundry items often already prepared. As with Korean bibimbap, Dragonfly’s version starts with a large bowl of brown rice at the bottom of the bowl.  Atop the rice are sundry vegetables–zucchini, broccoli, julienned carrots, scallions and more as well as a generous dollop of pleasantly piquant garlic chili sauce.  Two eggs prepared to your exacting specifications cover much of the dish.  Mixing the melange is not only fun, but introduces all the elements to each other, forming a wondrous deliciousness in every bite.  You can add chicken, tofu or steak to the bibimbap if you wish, but they’re wholly unnecessary.

Organic Chicken Pot Pie

Another well interpreted dish worthy of its Greek origin are gyros, marinated lamb nestled in a warm pita and served with tzatziki sauce, hummus, tomato, red onion, cucumber, feta cheese and olives.  Unlike that served on gyros at many a Greek restaurant, the lamb is not shaved from a vertical spit nor is it an amalgam of lamb and beef.  It’s wonderfully seasoned and marinated lamb reminiscent of the shawarma offered at the magnificent San Pedro Middle East Restaurant.  The garlicky hummus and tzatziki are excellent as well.

Somewhat less exotic, but very good “mom” food is the organic chicken pot pie.  Atop the crust is a dragonfly shaped cut-out also made of crust.  Puncture the crust and you’re greeted with wisps of fragrant steam enticing you further.  Fill your forks with a bit of crust and as creamy a pot pie concoction as you’ll find anywhere.  It’s resplendent with vegetables and not just the conventional carrots and potatoes.  Dragonfly’s pot pie includes sweet potatoes and other delicious surprises.  The organic chicken is plentiful and it’s cut into bite-size pieces so you’re not left wondering where the poultry went.

The dessert platter, a bevy of bakery deliciousness

Even if you’re left full from the generously portioned entrees, you’ve got to make room for one of the Dragonfly’s award-winning (“Best of Taos” in 2006, 2008 and 2009 according to the Taos News).  The bakery goods are fresh, homemade, healthy and made in-house using local organic flour, sweet cream butter and natural sweeteners.  No corn syrup or hydrogenated oils are used.  Your server will bring by a platter brimming with some of the bakery treasures: fruit galettes, tarts, brownies, cookies, chocolate eclairs, cheesecakes, bread pudding, coconut macaroons and truffles. Deciding what to have is nearly as challenging as some of the Taos Ski Valley’s exhilarating runs.

One of the most exciting is a white chocolate and cherry bread pudding, the best I’ve had in Taos county other than my mom’s caprirotada.  The warm gooeyness of the melting white chocolate, the tart-sweet cherries and the custard-like texture elevate this humble, moist dessert into an excellent rendition of my favorite dessert.  

The Dragonfly Cafe & Bakery is right at home in an area replete with art galleries and Karen Todd is every bit the artist as are  the much celebrated Taos art colony denizens.  Instead of a gallery, she creates her art in the kitchen.  Her restaurant and bakery are not to be missed.

Dragonfly Cafe & Bakery
402 Paseo Del Pueblo Norte
Taos, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 29 December 2011
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: *
COST: $$
BEST BET: Bibimbop, Lamb Gyros, Organic Chicken Pot Pie, Macaroon, Cherry & White Chocolate Bread Pudding, Dulce de Leche Tart

Dragonfly Cafe & Bakery on Urbanspoon

India Palace – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

The India Palace, one of Albuquerque’s most popular Indian restaurants

When many of us think of romantic destinations to visit or in which to honeymoon, our choices probably mirror closely those of US News & World Report which listed among their 22 best honeymoon destinations such exotic locations as Kauai, Maui, Florence, Crete, Santorini and even Las Vegas, Nevada.  The authors apparently didn’t think enchantment is synonymous with romance or wedded  bliss because no New Mexico locations made the list,  Surprisingly, neither did any destination in India. 

Not everyone equates India with romance, but its ancient legends, history and monuments are rich with tales of profound love.  One of the world’s most far-famed love offerings is the opulent and ethereal Taj Mahal, built by a grieving emperor in memory of his dearly beloved wife and queen.  India also gave the world the Kama Sutra, an ancient Hindu text widely recognized as a definitive guide to the nature of love and the pleasure-oriented aspects of human life.  Hindus understood the importance of fore foreplay, paying significant attention to light, music, touch, smell, drink and food before moving on to carnal pleasures.

Preprandial pleasure: tamarind, onion and mint chutneys.

Preprandial pleasure: tamarind, onion and mint chutneys.

Sensual, tactile, pleasurable–those adjectives are probably used more frequently to describe the practices of the Kama Sutra, it wouldn’t be a stretch to apply those adjectives to an outstanding meal of Indian cuisine, maybe to add even more superlatives.  Those adjectives certainly apply to a meal at the Indian Palace on the southeast intersection of Wyoming and Montgomery in Albuquerque. Sensual certainly applies because the intoxicating aromas of exotic spices infiltrate olfactory senses which some physiologists indicate are a key to arousal.

Tactile is appropriate because you’ll keep your hands busy tearing off hunks of naan (Indian flat bread made from wheat with a slightly flaky crust baked in a tandoor) to dip into one of the restaurant’s wonderful chutneys. India Palace offers a variety of naan including an absolutely delicious garlic naan which is garnished with parsley and slightly moistened with ghee, the rich clarified butter prominent in Indian cuisine. Perhaps even better is the onion naan with bits of crunchy green onion baked right in.

Garlic Naan, some of Albuquerque’s best

As heretical as it may sound, there are times in which I believe naan is even better than the ubiquitous New Mexican tortilla with which I grew up. The India Palace bakes some of the best naan we’ve  had in New Mexico–naan which it’s easy to envision being used to sop up chile.  If naan can be compared, even if loosely, to the tortilla then poori is akin to New Mexico’s beloved sopaipilla.  Poori is a deep-fried whole wheat bread which puffs up as golden pillows of delicious goodness which just might have you longing for honey.

Another tactile pleasure begins shortly after you’re seated when a complementary plate of papadum (pictured above) accompanied by three stainless steel vessels of Indian chutneys is brought to your table. Papadum are crispy crackers somewhat resembling flattened taco shells, but far more brittle. They’re made with lentil flour and have a brittle texture, breaking easily so they can be dipped into the accompanying chutneys.

Poori, Deep-fried whole wheat bread

Indian chutney is usually prepared to be eaten fresh and as a genre, might be compared to the familiar salsas served throughout New Mexico. Authentic chutneys usually contain a significant amount of olfactory-arousing, tongue-tingling spices (including piquant green chili peppers) and center around a wide variety of vegetables or fruits. Among the most popular chutneys are a red onion chutney, a mint chutney and a fruity, semi-sweet tamarind chutney (all three pictured above).

Few things in life are as pleasurable as a meal of well prepared, perfectly seasoned Indian food and the India Palace is Albuquerque’s premier practitioner of that art. Lunch time is when the restaurant is most crowded with white- and blue-collar workers partaking of the all-you-can-eat buffet.

Mulligatawney, a melodic name for a savory soup.

Mulligatawney, a melodic name for a savory soup.

In the evening, everything is an order of magnitude (or more) better. That’s when you get the full India Palace treatment: subdued lighting, impeccably formal service, a nattily attired wait staff, perfectly aligned place settings, starched maroon napkins–and no buffet to tempt you away from the outstanding menu offerings.That dinner menu features several pages of traditional Indian favorites, about 70 choices in all. Whether your pleasure be appetizers, entrees or desserts, chances are you’ll enjoy whatever you order.

New Mexican   spice aficionados (not to mention fans of the Seinfeld “soup Nazi” episode) might want to start with the India Palace’s Mulligatawny (pictured above), a mildly spicy soup comprised of vegetables and nuts seasoned with curry powder and pepper then served with rice. It’s very flavorful though it can always be improved with even more pepper and a tad more salt.

Your best bet–dining with friends and sharing entrees

Among the entrees, the tandoori dishes, especially tandoori chicken, seem to be especially popular. Traditionally, tandoori cooking is done in a Tandoor, a clay oven which heats to temperatures in excess of 500 degrees and imprints meat with a smoky flavor. Meats are marinated in a mixture of spices, herbs and yogurt that permeate them with a distinctive red color.  At the Palace, the tandoori lamb, chicken and fish are all wonderful. A mixed tandoori grill entree includes a chicken breast, drumstick, sausage and prawn, all lavished with breathtaking spices. It’s the best way to sample a variety of palate pleasing meats.

Even if you think you don’t like Indian food and lamb in particular, the Sheek Kabob (pictured below) will win you over. It’s choice, minced lamb seasoned with mild spices (mint and ginger are easily discernable) and barbecued on skewers in a clay oven. It has the texture of sausage and little of the gaminess often associated with lamb dishes. It is simply one of the very best lamb dishes around.

Sheek Kabob with mattar paneer.

Sheek Kabob with mattar paneer.

Aficionados of piquant foods might also be drawn to the restaurant’s vindaloo offerings. This curry dish is prepared with tamarind paste, chile, pepper, vinegar and other seasonings to imbue it with a rich taste. The import of chili peppers in the 16th century by Portuguese traders led to the development of vindaloo dishes in Goa, a former Portuguese colony on the Indian coast. In the land of the Kama Sutra, the late-arriving chile pepper had a very significant impact on romance, earning repute as a powerful aphrodisiac (to be eaten, not rubbed on sensitive private parts).

The degree of heat at which vindaloo is served at Indian restaurants throughout the world ranges in restaurants from barely tepid by New Mexican chile standards to sheer delicious agony with enough heat to make grown adults weep. In fact, in some restaurants in London and even New York City, it’s almost a sport to see how piquant intrepid diners can stand their vindaloo.

Lamb vindaloo

Lamb vindaloo

Duke City diners need not worry about being overtaken by delicious fumes and overpowering heat. The vindaloo at the Indian Palace isn’t even as piquant as a bowl of chile at Sadie’s. You can ask for additional spices and chile to be added if you wish. Whatever your taste, the Palace serves a very good lamb vindaloo.  To quell a fiery tongue resultant from a particularly potent green chile, New Mexicans might turn to milk. Similarly, Indians will have a glass of room temperature lassi available as they consume the spiciest of vindaloo. Lassi is a creamy concoction made from milk and yogurt. Though it has soothing properties, it can also be quite filling.

Indian cuisine is very accommodating to vegetarian tastes with a variety of wonderful offerings all lavished with aromatic sauces: a tomato-based makhani sauce, a curry and green pea sauce called mattar (my favorite) and saag, made with gamy spinach. Many vegetarian dishes are prepared with paneer, an unaged cheese somewhat similar to pressed Ricotta. Mattar paneer and sag paneer as crafted at the India Palace might be good enough to convert carnivores to vegetarianism.

Gulab Jamun--you might swear you're tasting pancakes in syrup.

Gulab Jamun–you might swear you’re tasting pancakes in syrup.

For dessert, breakfast aficionados will appreciate gulab jamun (pictured at left) a dessert dish with a taste somewhat reminiscent of pancakes and hot syrup. Gulab Jamun is made of fried dough and covered in a sugar syrup flavored with cardamom seeds. If not for their donut hole appearance, these gems really might make you think you’re having pancakes in a thinned down syrup. They’re delicious. 

Another terrific dessert, particularly if you like paneer, is Rasmali, balls of paneer soaked in malai (clotted cream) flavored with cardamom and sprinkled with minced pistachios.  This dessert reminds me of the goat cheese we ate with syrup in Northern New Mexico.  It’s a wonderful combination of sweet and savory flavors bringing out the best in each other.  Unlike the gulab jamun, this isn’t an overly sweet dessert.

Rasmalai: Great dessert dish of paneer (farmer’s cheese) soaked in malai (clotted cream) flavored with cardamom.

While the India Palace can be a terrific precursor to a night of romance, it’s also a wonderful restaurant to share with friends and colleagues, especially if they’re from India.  My globe-trotting, gastronomically savvy friends Tushar Desai and Kannan Appuswamy give the India Palace a rousing endorsement.  They’re not impressed with Americanized Indian food and were surprised at the authenticity of most foods at the Palace.

India Palace
4410 Wyoming Blvd, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 5 October 2011
# OF VISITS: 13
CLOSED: May 2013
RATING: 22
COST: $$$
BEST BET:Tandoori, Chutney, naan, mattar paneer, Sheek Kabab, Lamb Vindaloo, Mulligatawny, Gulab Jamun, Poori, Rasmalai,

India Palace (Northeast) on Urbanspoon

Saffron Tiger Indian Cuisine Express – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Saffron Tiger: Indian Cuisine Express in the Northeast Heights

Is there anything that screams monotonous, tedious homogeneity louder than the typical food court at any mall in cosmopolitan America?   “But,” you might argue, “the food court is a paragon of diversity where you can get your fill of pizza, sushi, burgers, cinnamon rolls, sweet and sour mystery meat and a veritable United Nations line-up of ethnic foods all in one place.”  While that might be true, my argument is that the same boring sameness you find in Albuquerque’s mall food courts can be found at any food court in any mall.  Only airports have a similarly comparable array of uninspiring food-court-type selections.

Despite the “culinary diversity” in food courts, there is an almost general scarcity of local culinary representation.  At least that’s the case in the contiguous area shared by multiple food vendors; small private vendors are usually relegated to outlying areas of the mall.  Food courts are, by and large, the haven of fast food chains which can afford the steep rent commanded in the premium heavily-trafficked area. Typical food court tenants may include McDonalds or Burger King, Edo Japan, Sbarro, China Wok, Cinnabon and others of that ilk.

Saffron Tiger Indian Cuisine on Alameda

An argument could be made that food courts make the “exotic” affordable–and approachable.  Diners who might not, for example, venture into a Japanese sushi restaurant might find themselves emboldened to try the mall food court sushi where they don’t have to know what and how to order or how to eat their unfamiliar fare.  Mall food court restaurants, boring as they may be, have their place and it’s not necessarily within the confines of a mall.

While some vendors (such as Sbarro) operate almost exclusively in food courts, other mall food court denizens have spread their tentacles across suburbia. One, the Panda Express, is the fastest growing gourmet Chinese food concept in the United States. Its fast casual environment and alluring silver serving trays are popular, in large part, because they give diners options–such as dine-in or carry-out, a la carte or combo–at reasonable prices and in the large portions to which Americans seem to gravitate.

Cafeteria-style serving at Saffron Tiger

For twelve years, K.C. Wang oversaw a regional Panda Express operation, watching the burgeoning franchise win over the hearts and appetites of Americans.  He reasoned that the successful modus operandi would work well with East Indian food, too.  Rather than relegate the concept to a mall food court, he and his business partners launched a restaurant storefront called Saffron Tiger Indian Cuisine Express on Holly Plaza just north of Paseo del Norte.

After his inaugural visit, my frequent dining companion Bill Resnik excitedly told me about the “East Indian version of Panda Express.”   Possessing one of the most pedantic palates of anyone I know, Bill’s assessment of Saffron Tiger was, “about average for an Indian restaurant, but excellent for a food court type operation.”  While not necessarily a rousing endorsement, he did praise the garlic naan, chili chicken and saag paneer, three of my favorite Indian dishes.

Mango Lassi and four entrees

Saffron Tiger Indian Cuisine Express has the polish and panache of a brand new restaurant in a brand new shopping center.  Launched in October, 2009, it is a bright and attractive venue with gleaming silver holding trays showcasing more than twenty steaming East Indian dishes, including a wide variety of vegetarian items.  An open kitchen environment backdrops the counter and above the industrial cooking apparatus is a brightly colored menu listing and describing the fare.

The menu is pretty basic.  You can opt for a two entree combo—any two entrees and one side or a three entrée combo—any three entrees and one side, both well under ten dollars.  You can also order from the a la carte menu: any entrée or any side in single or large sizes.  A “family feast” comprised of three large entrees and two large sides is available for under thirty dollars.  Sides, by the way, can be ordered in half orders such as a half order of garlic naan and rice.  In sheer volume, a three-entrée combo approximates the equivalent of an Indian buffet.

Four more entrees

Your order is apportioned into paper plates, each compartment filled to brimming.  One compartment is reserved for sides: naan or garlic naan, steamed rice or Tiger Rice (made with cumin seed, bay leaf and peas) or crispy cabbage.  Your best bet is to order two half sides and even then, the half portions are prodigious. Chutneys are complementary and mango lassi is available to quench your thirst.

My friend Bill’s assessment of Saffron Tiger Indian Cuisine Express was pretty much spot on.  There is better Indian food to be had in Albuquerque, but for a semi fast-food operation, Saffron Tiger is a force to be reckoned with.  Some items are very good and everything we had was fresh, hot and seasoned well.  Reasonable portions, good value for the money, delicious food–for what more can you ask?

My friend Samriti Jain enjoys fine Indian cuisine at Saffron Tiger Indian Cuisine on Alameda

The stand-outs include the garlic naan which is served warm and fresh with a nice amount of char and pungency from the garlic.  It’s not doughy in the least and in fact, some parts crumble off.  The tamarind chutney has a nice balance of sweet and tanginess and makes an excellent dip for the naan.  The Indian pickles, though not made in-house, are excellent with the pungency, piquancy and bitterness you come to expect from Indian pickles though that generalization is wholly inaccurate because there are hundreds of ways to make Indian pickles.

Also quite good is the saag paneer, a mildly aromatic curry dish which contains a non-melting, salt-free “farmer’s cheese” called paneer. Saffron Tiger’s rendition is generous with its paneer and spices this entree very well so that creaminess and piquancy are well-balanced.  The piquancy is subtle, not intended to incinerate your taste buds, but to tantalize them.  The piquancy of the chili chicken, on the other hand, is intended to grab your attention.  This is a very interesting dish which Bill indicated was prepared differently than the first time he had it.  What we were served was reminiscent of a Chinese sesame chicken entree with chilis.  It was good, but more Chinese than Indian.

From the buffet at Saffron Tiger Indian Cuisine on Alameda

Other items weren’t executed quite as well.  The chicken tikki masala (chicken marinated in yogurt and spices and then served in a rich orange, creamy, lightly spiced, tomato-based sauce), was made with the bane of any chicken-based entree, desiccated dark meat.  This was truly tragic because the sauce was quite good.

Saffron Tiger Indian Cuisine Express is far from a boring, homogenous copycat mall food court quality operation.  It has no pretensions about being a gourmet East Indian restaurant treating its cuisine with a reverential respect.  It’s cafeteria-style Indian food done surprisingly well.  Its time has come. 

The time for expansion occurred about a year and a half after the opening of the Saffron Tiger Indian Cuisine Express.   The second instantiation is called Saffron Tiger Indian Cuisine, sans the Express part of the name.  It’s situated on Corrales Boulevard at the former site of India Palace.  Just as the “Express” portion of the elder sibling’s name fits to a tee, so does the shortened name fit the newer restaurant which is primarily a menu-driven operation (though a lunch buffet is available). 

The Saffron Tiger Indian Cuisine restaurant bears little resemblance to its predecessor or to its elder sibling.  It has the look and feel of a fine dining establishment with the flexibility of a lunch buffet.  The cynosure is a decorous bar with an expansive wine menu as well as domestic, imported and Indian beers.  The lunch buffet is obfuscated by a divider.

Whether you visit the Express restaurant on Paseo del Norte or its more upscale and classy sister on Corrales Boulevard, you’ll  be in for a very pleasant dining experience highlighted by food you will enjoy.

Saffron Tiger Indian Cuisine Express
6550 Paseo Del Norte, N.E., Suite D1
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 797-2856
Web Site
LATEST VISIT
: 11 May 2010
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: *
COST: $$
BEST BET: Garlic Naan, Chili Chicken, Saag Paneer, Raja Shrimp

Saffron Tiger Indian Cuisine Express on Urbanspoon


Saffron Tiger Indian Cuisine
10701 Corrales Blvd, N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 898-4188
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 24 August 2011
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: *
COST: $$
BEST BET:

Saffron Tiger Indian Cuisine on Urbanspoon

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