PITTSFIELD -- Jaswant Singh Banga has run House of India in Pittsfield as chef and owner for nearly 20 years.
Before coming to the Berkshires in 1993, Banga worked at a restaurant in New York, and between that background and the time-tested experience of his restaurateur uncle, Banga felt comfortable running his own restaurant. He opened his first in Vermont in 1992.
"I just copied from my uncle's menu," Banga explained. "It worked for him before, so I went from there."
Not much has changed at House of India in nearly two decades.
"It's pretty much the same," Banga said. "We moved upstairs, then downstairs. But everybody knows me; I've been here a long time, and people like my cooking."
The restaurant itself is a small storefront with a few booths on each wall and three short tables in the middle. A large television screen on the far wall shows a looping smattering of clips from various Bollywood movies (although quietly enough to hear everything else in the restaurant), and a long table on the right holds a line of large copper pots that likely would be filled with food during the lunch buffet ($10).
As we were there for dinner instead, I started with an appetizer, forgoing the tempting pakoras and samosas in favor of an Onion Naan ($3.50), which turned out to have great flavor. The warm bread sprinkled with a touch of herbs was a very satisfying complex blend of flavors. The onions were baked right into the bread along with a mixture just sweet and spicy enough to notice, but not overly so. The bottom was crispy, the naan itself very chewy, and the whole appetizer good enough that if only it were on the buffet, I'd be back for lunch in a heartbeat.
My dining companion ordered the Mango Chicken ($12), a small dish of tender chicken cooked in a rich mango sauce, served with a copper pot of basmati rice. As I have an insatiable sweet tooth and no limit to how rich I like my food, I found this dish to be very good, but those who try to avoid overly sweet or heavy fare likely will want to skip this dish. Heavy on the oil and heavy on the flavor, this dish proved just too intense for my dining companion to finish -- which was fine by me because I enjoyed every bite.
I ordered the Raja Thalii ($17), a traditional full meal served on a giant metal tray containing Tandoori chicken, Seekh kebab, a slice of papadam, plain naan, and small bowls of lamb curry, chana masala, rice and gulab jamun. The naan had a nice texture but tasted a bit plain in comparison to the delicious spiced naan I'd ordered as an appetizer. The papadam was unremarkable.
The lamb curry was mildly sweet and a bit more tomato-flavored than I had hoped for, but the few pieces of lamb were chewy and pleasant enough. Less to my taste was the Chana Masala, a blend of herbs, onions, tomatoes, and chickpeas. Somehow the Chana Masala promised a tangy flavor when brought to the tongue, but the flavor disappeared almost immediately, leaving not much but an aftertaste of tomato.
The Tandoori chicken was a good example of the standard, being reasonably tender and also a good amount of spicy to make it interesting. (Diners are asked what spice level they would like; I chose "medium"). But the centerpiece of the Raja Thaali was definitely the Seekh Kebab: two pieces of lamb and onion sausage with a blend of herbs and spices that really impressed. Every bite was a strong flavor bursting with multiple notes, and I'd have to call it the high point of the meal.
Finally, my single piece of Gulab Jamun had the spongy texture one desires from these deep-fried cream balls.
Overall, not every dish was a winner, but there are certainly enough good options to make House of India well worth a try.
If you go ...
What: House of India
Where: 261 North St., Pittsfield
Hours: Monday to Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. (lunch buffet); Sunday to Saturday, 5 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. (dinner)
Handicapped accessible: Yes
Price range: $10-$17
indiaonline.com, (413) 443-3262
Rating: 3.5 chef's hats
Chef Hat Rating (an explanation of the ranking system)
3: Good food, with no reason not to try
4: Worth repeat visits
5: Take your visiting friends here to impress them