Friday, September 11, 2009

Epicurean Adventures: Indian in the Mountains

In a small college town like Williamstown, whose hub is centered around two short but picturesque streets, you expect the food to be either rapturously amazing due to the rolling acres of farmland at the restaurants' disposal, or mediocre because they can be, since they'll still survive because people will eat there out of necessity. In my humble opinion, there's not too much in between.

Upon arrival in Williamstown, Massachusetts on Saturday, Boy and I were STARVING from our 4.5 hour drive, and ready to get down to business. Naturally, we headed to Spring Street. This was our destination of choice for two reasons - a) we'd passed it on our way to the hotel, so we knew where it was, and b) my little sister talked about eating on this street all the time.

With that in mind, we just drove down the street until we found parking (before our discovery that there was a big FREE parking lot at the end of the block ... more downtown areas should incorporate this!) and found ourselves in front of Spice Root, and Indian restaurant. The hilariously named Sushi Thai restaurant was right next store, and pad thai for $6.50 had its draws, but it'd been a while since I've had Indian and Boy loves the stuff ... so for once, I let him have his way.

We were catching the tail end of the lunch hours, and were excited to find that we made it for the weekend lunch buffet. $10.95 for all you can eat! And believe you me -- we can eat.

However, before we move forward, I have to issue a disclaimer here, lest you think me a total fool or bad at my job: I know literally NOTHING about Indian food. Zilch, zero, zip, nada. I don't know what anything is called, I barely know what it's supposed to taste like (except that when it's cooked by the mother of the author of BeerNOLA.com, it's one of the most amazing things EVER), and have no familiarity with the spices, flavors, or anything whatsoever to do with this particular type of ethnic cuisine. Anything I say after this is pretty much a guess, so I do apologize for my ignorance. But on this blog, I like to tell stories, so this is my (less descriptive than usual) story of my experience.

So, the place was small and cute, walls painted a slight variation of the Williams colors (apparently gold and purple; the restaurant's interior was a golden orange and deep violet), and cheerful lights strung up all over. A nice little bar stood in the far right corner, and a pint-size L-shaped buffet station was set up in the far left. There was a regular table up against the wall with desserts and cold items, a metal buffet station-type table with a hot water pool keeping the dishes heated, and another small table with a separated metal chafing dish.

I was happy to find that everything was clearly labeled, but disappointed that many items had run out. The selection was largely chicken in many different forms, one dish of lentils in some kind of sauce, and other vegetable dishes. There were no other types of meat, though. I waited for over an hour for the fabled Eggplant Fritters, but they were clearly not to be. Tandoori chicken didn't come out until halfway through the meal (I got up to pounce), and the nan was gone by the time my first plate was half empty.

Service was obviously not the best, and I found out from Williams College students that Spice Root actually has a reputation for really apathetic service. They were busy and understaffed, and I sat at the table with an empty goblet for about 10 minutes before getting up, walking to the bar, and getting my own water.

However, although service wasn't the greatest, after one plate, you could easily see that this wasn't a local favorite simply for lack of better options. The food was delicious! The chicken tikka masala, cut in generous chunks of juicy white meat, in a beautiful bright orange sauce, was addicting and fabulously good. Often, this dish is too spicy or too creamy, but the balance here was just great -- slightly creamy but not too rich, thick but not gloopy, and SO good. I couldn't get enough of this.

Rather than pairing this with nan and the regular, standard Basmati rice, they offered a garlic Basmati rice, chockful of peas, seasonings, some sort of fragrant bud (I didn't like these, though - it tasted like I was eating a candle), and of course, roasted garlic. This was the best rice I've ever had the pleasure of eating in an Indian restaurant.

The tandoori chicken was pretty standard, cut up in smaller more manageable chunks, sweet and slightly smoky, and the wings were nice and spicy, but the other two metal chafing dish things never materialized, so I can't say how good those other chicken dishes were.

I also thoroughly enjoyed the yellowy spinach dish with the mixed vegetables in it, a rich, earthy flavor to mix into my garlic rice. The texture of this was also really great in comparison to what I've had, like a thick but not chunky creamed dish that was subtly grainy. In fact, it was really similar to an awesome dish of creamed spinach, just flavored more exotically.

The mixed veggies in the reddish-orange sauce, I was less a fan of. The unidentified veggies in it were tangy and acidic, and the cauliflower was kind of squeaky, if that makes sense. Like hard, but in a shiny way. Also, if that makes any sense at all, either ... which I'm starting to question as I stare at those words.

The chicken in another form of masala sauce (or was it just tikka?) was also delicious, more tender, less creamy-tasting, and slightly spicier than the tikka masala, and that was also faboosh, but not as delightfully addicting as the tikka masala.

I was finishing up my third helping of garlic rice and chicken tikka masala when one of the servers came and plopped down two long, tall glasses of something orange. She let us know they were mango smoothies and on the house (probably because of the service earlier), which is normally really awesome news, except that at this point, we were super full! The mango "smoothie" seemed to be nothing but pureed perfectly ripe mango, which is tasty ... but very filling. Mango has a substantial heaviness and deep flavor to it, and so it was quite a shame that we were barely able to make a dent to the "smoothie."

Spice Root, poor service notwithstanding, was an excellent start to our time in Williamstown in the Berkshires, and we left there feeling fat and happy. For $11, you really can't get a better deal and *ahem* bigger portions. Who doesn't love a tasty lunch buffet? You don't feel half as bad as if you go to a dinner one (at least you can tell yourself you'll go for a walk after lunch and it may actually happen), and you eat a smaller dinner if you're a normal person and not me.

And now I'm going to conclude with something that may anger some people, but it must be said: Spice Root kicks the ass of Nirvana on Magazine Street in New Orleans. Their service may not have been as good, their selection not as wide, and they may not have the fried onion and pepper thingamabobs, but damn that chicken and garlic rice was amazing. I've never left a clean plate of Indian food before, where all the sauce was greedily sopped up, except at Spice Root. I may have to go back to visit my sister again soon.

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