526 Commack Rd., Deer Park
SERVICE: Well-meaning, but overtaxed and frequently unable to clarify menu descriptions
AMBIENCE: Slapdash but tidy
ESSENTIALS: Open every day from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 to 9 p.m.; wheelchair accessible, parking lot
There are restaurants that you date casually, checking in when the urge strikes, and expecting to pick up where you left off.
Then there are places that require more of a steady relationship to fully appreciate their charms. Deccan Spice is such a restaurant; it rewards the suitor who gets to know it.
Lookswise, it’s far from a knockout — a haphazard blend of thatched canopies, brick-print wallpaper and TV screens playing Bollywood dance numbers. The menu, at first glance, doesn’t look much more promising than the décor — it features the same chicken tikka masala, butter chicken and saag paneer you’ll find all over the Island, if not the world.
But then you notice the dozen biryanis on the menu. Biryani, one of the world’s great rice dishes, is made all over the Indian subcontinent. One epicenter is Hyderabad, in the south, and Hyderabad is the hometown of Deccan Spice owners Ram Ramsetti and Sirisha Tunuguntla.
The chicken dum biryani, served here in an embossed brass pot, was an unqualified hit. Tender bone-in chunks of chicken are buried in a drift of basmati rice, the discrete grains of which are a tricolor blend of gold, tangerine and white. The savory spices get a lift from a raw onion, fresh lime and plenty of cilantro.
Getting past the first biryani base of chicken dum is not easy. The menu lists three other chicken biryanis — Deccan special, Ulavacharu and Natukodi — but the most we managed to learn from our server about how they differed was that they entailed “different spices” and “different methods.”
Looking to satisfy the vegetarians at the table, we were steered toward vegetable biryani, but it was a bore — graying peas, regimental cubes of carrot and segments of string bean looked like they had spent some time in the freezer on their journey from farm to table. We were intrigued by sound of jackfruit biryani — the gigantic, pulpy tropical fruit is often pressed into service as a meat alternative — but it was not available on either of two visits.
We did encounter two wonderful vegetarian dishes: Anda bhurji, pleasantly crumbly scrambled eggs with fresh curry leaves, was only marred by the memory it occasioned of Hicksville’s late, lamented egg-centric eatery, Raju’s Egg & Veg. And crunchy golden cashew-paneer pakoras could qualify as the ultimate bar snack, combining fried and nutty in equal measure.
Deccan Spice is particularly strong on starters. I was happy to see the cryptically named Chettinad specialty, Chicken 65, fried boneless morsels whose violently crimson coating is a visual warning sign to beware the spice and tang. A new one on me was pepper-fry chicken, more fried boneless morsels, but in addition to a generous dose of spices and chilies, these were additionally spiked with loads of black pepper.
The curries we tried were hit and miss. Gongura lamb, named for the sour leaf used in its preparation, was darkly alluring; bagara baingan featured lackluster eggplant; the pieces of meat in Andhra chicken were giblet-small. As with the biryanis, the curries were not described well enough for us to make informed decisions.
One northern Indian dish that wowed us was the tandoori chicken. Having been given a spicier-than-usual yogurt bath and clay-oven roasting, it was brought to the table a-sizzle on a cast-iron skillet showered with cilantro.
A couple of easy upgrades could improve the dining experience at Deccan Spice. Dinner napkins, for example. Tables are set with little red cocktail napkins; requests for more napkins produce ever small ones. Forks and spoons are dinky; knives are available only upon request.
The menu highlights a number of intriguing items — that jackfruit biryani and a special of goat haleem — that the kitchen, on two occasions, was not able to produce. We went one Wednesday night to take advantage of “dosa night” (devoted to South Indian rice and lentil crepes) but were told the necessary ingredients had not been delivered.
The most significant barrier to fully appreciating Deccan Spice, however, is language. One evening, no one in the restaurant spoke English well enough to help us out; another evening, the floor manager was very fluent in English but, since he was from Punjab, not very fluent in biryani or South Indian curries.
A partial solution to this problem is Deccan Spice’s lunch buffet, where, for $10.99 ($13.99 on weekends), you can see and sample more than a dozen dishes, plus breads and desserts. Or, you can make a commitment to become a steady customer, and reap the benefits that familiarity bestows.