If, for some reason, we were exiled from the city, we might choose Aspinwall to live. We’re suckers for its small-town charm of handsome houses just a brick-paved street or two away from surprisingly varied commerce, including its share of noteworthy eats. Aspinwall has also got a strong community vibe: On a recent evening, the businesses on Commercial Avenue hosted a community cocktail party featuring live music. That sounds to us like a pretty swell way to meet the neighbors.
Another appealing vibe was in full swing a couple blocks away, on Brilliant Avenue, on the broad covered patio of an Indian restaurant, Spice Affair. Nothing beats summertime outdoor dining for conviviality with fellow diners and even passers-by, everyone complicit in the pleasure of a perfect summer evening.
But what’s a perfect evening without food? In our book, Indian fare is a crowd-pleaser, offering everything from kid-friendly rice and tandoori chicken to extensive vegetarian offerings, complex (not necessarily spicy) curries and meat-centric skewers. The flip side can be a confusing profusion of dishes: Spice Affair’s menu stretches to 116 items, not counting desserts and beverages. The emphasis is definitely on northern Indian cuisine, with dosas and just a handful of seafood preparations, all either shrimp or salmon.
Speaking of crowd-pleasers, dinner started with a complementary basket of chips, made from deep-fried flour flatbread; they were crispy and habit-forming, and an excellent excuse to try the classic trio of chutneys: vibrant green mint, sweet brown tamarind and brilliant red onion. The range of heat was pleasing, from mellow tamarind to fiery, yet addictive, onion.
Piling starch on starch, we ordered the bread basket, combining naan, garlic naan and aloo parantha. The naan were pleasingly fluffy and light, browned at the edges but tender throughout, and absent the greasiness that sometimes vies with their delectable butteriness. The parantha went one better, with potato and peas thoroughly incorporated into a pillowy, deeply flavorful bread that was satisfying alone or dipped in curry.
We never pass up a chance to sample chaats, India’s vaguely nacho-like street snacks. Once rare on local menus, they’re now more common, but not ubiquitous. Spice Affair offers four — three of which top fried patties or fritters with chickpeas, yogurt, mint and tamarind. The fourth was more like a chickpea salad, including cucumber and onion. We chose the aloo tikki, which uses potato patties as a base. One of the pleasures of chaat is the combination of temperatures, with cool yogurt atop lukewarm legumes and hot patties. This chaat delivered all that and more, deliciously balancing the earthy notes of fried potatoes and chickpeas with the creamy tang of yogurt and the bright high notes of onion pickles.
Biryani at its best is celebratory food: saffron rice and meat layered with raisins, nuts, browned onions, and whole hard boiled eggs, served with a raita. Restaurants rarely go to this much trouble, sticking with easier-to-prepare versions that don’t differ much from stir-fries. Spice Affair’s was in the latter category. Its chicken and rice were perfectly prepared, but nuts and raisins made only cameo appearances, and there were neither onions nor eggs in sight. The serving dish did have a separate well for raita, and it was a worthy one, combining housemade yogurt with herbs, garlic and carrot so finely shredded as to add color more than texture.
Spice Affair’s mastery of meat was most evident in the mixed grill, where it can be hard to get everything right. Both bone-in tandoori chicken and cubed tikka were moist and tender; sausage-like torpedoes of ground-lamb sheekh kebab were richly flavored; and lamb boti kebab — marinated chunks — were superb morsels. Even shrimp, the bête noire of tandoori cooking, was unusually tender and succulent amidst its copious char. Alas, too free a hand with the salt shaker overwhelmed the subtle shellfish flavor.
Channa saag, a vegetarian stew of spinach and chickpeas, was well seasoned with cumin, coriander and all the warm spices. Lamb karahi, named after the wok-like dish in which it’s prepared, was a fairly simple combination of meat, tomatoes, onions, garlic and ginger. We ordered both dishes a 4 on the 1-to-10 heat scale, but neither was perceptibly spicy at all. We especially missed heat in the karahi, which seemed otherwise similar to tomato-based stews and sauces from any number of cuisines.
With a menu as broad as Spice Affair’s, it’s hard to pass judgment based on one meal. Certainly, the breads and grilled meats were stand-outs. The rest was good enough to enhance our enjoyment of, perhaps, Spice Affair’s greatest asset: its outdoor patio in Aspinwall.