The best chicken in Vegas
Wed, Nov 11, 2009 (4:53 p.m.)
Photo: Beverly Poppe
The recently opened Namaste doesn’t break new ground as an Indian restaurant, but it does maintain a standard of excellence one hopes will be sustained. With a fortuitous location in the Commercial Center, next door to the iconic Lotus of Siam, it has already attracted a lot of attention. In fact, the restaurant has been the beneficiary of spillover, when lines at Lotus are simply too long for some to bear.
Namaste’s chef is Om Singh, a veteran local Indian chef who proved his mettle at Tamba, the Strip restaurant that boasts the city’s largest Indian buffet. The restaurant is small but atmospheric. Walls are dark wooden panels with shutters, a neocolonial style that mimics Indian architecture during the days of the Raj. It’s an attractive room, with subcontinent music playing softly in the background.
If you are into buffets (I’m not), the $8.95 lunch spread is a bargain. There are two kinds of chicken—the red-hued tandoori-style from the clay oven and chicken tikka masala, chicken medallions swimming in a creamy, bright-orange gravy—as well as a lamb dish, several vegetable stews, the spiced yogurt Indians call raita, salad and palau, steamed rice with peas. Everything is fresh, tasty and judiciously spiced.
But it is the à la carte menu, and the more subdued dinner crowd that goes with it, that attracts me. Singh has added a few unusual dishes not found elsewhere in Vegas. One is the appetizer called sev puri, a snack from the Gujurat province of West India. Picture crisp wheat-flour discs topped with curried vegetables, drizzled with yogurt and mint chutney and topped with sev—wispy garbanzo flour noodles so tiny that a hundred of them would fit into a spoon.
Sometimes Singh has his own version of tandoori chicken, not the bland type rubbed with a red paste that every restaurant in town serves, but a life-changing experience. To make this dish, the chicken must be marinated for several hours in a thick batter of yogurt and spices, so that the marinade forms a crust when it has been cooked in the tandoor, or cylindrical clay oven.
This is the best chicken in Las Vegas, a revelation when eaten with hot shards of garlic naan, butter-rubbed flatbread best eaten hot from the oven. The catch? The chef doesn’t make this labor-intensive chicken every day, so call in advance to determine if it will be available.
Namaste also excels at pakoras—meat or vegetable fritters with a golden breading made from garbanzo-bean flour. Onion, potato, cauliflower and chicken are some of the choices, and they are all wonderful finger foods (great with an Indian beer). The other appetizer I would eat in a Calcutta minute is aloo tikka, spiced potato patties that are to Indian cuisine what latkes are to the deli.
An Indian restaurant is heaven for a vegetarian; a large segment of the Indian population does not eat meat. So naturally, there are many vegetarian choices here. Aloo gobi is one of the most popular—braised cauliflower and potatoes redolent of spice and chili. Bhindi masala, okra fried crisp in a karahi, or Indian wok, has tomato and masala, an Indian spice blend, in the mix.
For a richer, heartier meal, try malai kofta, the original veggie burger, in this case a cluster of rich vegetable dumplings bobbing in an impossibly creamy sauce. And if you cotton to lentils, the thick dal makhni, black lentils reduced to a pudding with butter, tomatoes and herbs, is magical when spooned over the house basmati rice.
Lamb dishes like lamb vindaloo (lamb braised with vinegar and potatoes), seafood such as Goan shrimp curry made with coconut milk and a spate of desserts round out this extensive menu. There are also the rice casseroles known as biryani, made with chicken, lamb or prawn—all hearty, fragrant and filling.
Personally, give me a brownie sundae instead of one of the Indian milk sweets that pass as desserts in this culture. I would save room for kheer—rice pudding with raisins and almonds—or, when they have it, carrot halwa, which tastes like nothing more than grated carrots with butter and sugar, served hot.
Next time I head for Lotus of Siam, I won’t plan to wait in line.