Indian food in Pittsfield?

Mango lassi. Say it with me. Mango lassi. Mmmmm. If that doesn’t tantalize the taste buds, I don’t know what will.

This weekend, Gusty Babson and I ventured down to Pittsfield’s Sangeet Restaurant, or, if we play it their way, Sangeet Fine Indian Cuisine. Now, you might be a bit put off by the idea of ethnic food in rural northwestern Massachusetts, let alone an Indian restaurant in a renovated IHOP, but I think you might be pleasantly surprised by this one.

Fact: India, with its roaring population of over one billion people (that’s three times that of the US, 164 times that of Massachusetts, and five hundred million times that of Williams College) runs its borders around an area roughly one-third that of the United States. Three times the people, one-third the land.

Developing a menu to represent a country this large might place a rather difficult burden on Sangeet’s shoulders, especially considering how much the cuisine varies from North to South India, but somehow these guys pull it off. Sporting over 75 dishes, a full bar, and an adequate wine list, I promise you will find at least one thing to tempt your tummy.

Back to the mango lassi. Gusty assures me that it’s a cool, refreshing blend of yogurt and sweetened mango puree. All I know is it tastes like Zeus’ nectar. Practically a meal in itself, a lassi is probably not the best way to begin a full dinner; she recommends sharing one for the table. A lighter alternative might be spiced Indian tea or one of their dozen wines, but with this many flavors on the tongue, I’d suggest you stick with water.

The Shorbe and Shurwat (that’s soups and starters to the layman) sections basically split down the middle: one side fried, the other not. About the only fried dish I would recommend is the samosa, be it lamb or vegetable; the other choices don’t offer much taste other than vegetable oil. Healthier options include a traditional lentil soup and bhel puri, a Sangeet creation of rice crisps, tomato and onion, tossed with spiced green chutney and a tambrind sauce.

After appetizers we were full enough to ask for the check, but hell, we’re American, we’re supposed to overeat, right? Before we had time to reconsider, the manager stopped by to take away our plates and ask if we were ready for our dinner. Note: these guys are mellow but efficient and rank highly on the service scale.

I had a difficult time deciding from amongst the 50 odd dinner options, but with Gusty’s help we settled on a sort of Tandoori platter. Tandoori equals meat (chicken, lamb or shrimp in this case) cooked with a spiced yogurt marinade in a clay oven. Tandoori also equals mediocrity. It by no means tasted bad, but neither does Vicki’s Beef Brisket. We figured that this restaurant probably toned down the spice factor in order to please the Pittsfield crowds. After all, with a Friendly’s and McDonalds across the street most folk will choose a burger and shake over murg tikka and lassi.

To accompany our meat we ordered two Indian breads: the traditional nan, unleavened white flour bread topped with butter, and paratha, whole wheat layer bread. I enjoyed the nan, but the paratha was a bit dry and crispy. Gusty claims that in prior visits Sangeet proved its paratha to be quite tasty, so it’s worth a try. Whatever you decide, try a few different breads at the table; it’s nearly indispensable when it comes to mopping up the sauces.

If meat isn’t your thing, you won’t be disappointed with the vegetarian fare. In fact, there are dozens of options, ranging from palak paneer, a homemade cottage cheese cooked with spinach and spiced, to baigan bhurtha, mashed, barbequed eggplant cooked with tomatoes, onion and green peas. We tried the latter, and found it to be perhaps the best part of the meal. In general, I’d suggest you stick to vegetarian cuisine at this joint, as Indian food generally revolves around vegetables, not meat. Don’t worry about filling up, either; the vegetable dishes are certainly hearty enough to satisfy.

The dessert choices are refreshingly sweet, a welcome change after the dinner’s spicy curries and heavy sauces. I’d suggest the kheer, a rice dish cooked with milk, saffron, and cardamom, or maybe the rasmalai, sweetened cottage cheese and pistachios.

While the prices aren’t cheap, they’re worth it, especially considering that Sangeet is the only Indian restaurant around. Appetizers run from four to seven dollars, bread from three to four dollars and dinners from $10-15. A nice alternative is their seven dollar lunch special, which allows you all the flavor for about a third the price.

Bottom line: if you’re willing to make the 25-minute drive, Sangeet is worth a try, and with the extensive menu, maybe two or three tries. The food and service make for a welcome escape from Williamstown’s standard, and in comparison, rather limited fare.