There was a place in Amherst whose lights shone ever-so-briefly, now mostly remembered for its name: Hucklebuckets. Buckets may be the least appetizing serving vessel you might propose, short of bedpans.
Plus, why name a restaurant after the dishes? So when I learned that the Pakistani restaurant in Kenmore had changed its name to Clay Handi, I was wary.
A handi is a type of lidded clay pot traditionally used in Pakistan, owner Masud Qazi explained. All of the dishes in the restaurant are made of clay right down to the water cups.
Would all the attention paid to the servingware undercut the restaurant's focus on the quality of food? After enjoying the lively curries and sublime baked-to-order breads at Clay Handi, I would have been happy eating its food off an old Frisbee.
Qazi opened the place in 2011 as Zaiqa, the only Pakistani place in the area. It was a buffet-centric restaurant, but now only cooks dishes to order for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
A thorough redecorating has turned Clay Handi into the most exotic former KFC dining room around. Checkerboard walls are lined with vessels, pitchers and platters.
Pakistani cuisine is quite similar to Indian, differing in details like spice mixtures. There's fried appetizers like samosas, pastry-wrapped turnovers, aromatic rice pilafs like biryanis, and curry dishes, each in their own distinctly flavored gravy.
Grilled meats, kabobs and made-to-order flatbreads come out of the tandoor oven.
After ordering, the table was set with more clay saucers filled with sweet-and-sour tamarind sauce, mango preserves, bracing cilantro-chile chutney, assertively sour yogurt sauce, "like our ketchup," the server said, but with far more range.
They came in handy dressing up the thick-shelled but serviceable samosas stuffed with potato and peas ($1.99), spiced ground chicken ($2.99) and vegetable pakora ($6.99), onions, cauliflower and more fried in chickpea batter.
Seekh kabobs, in chicken ($7.99), beef ($9.99) and lamb ($12.99), didn't need any boost. They were robustly spiced cylinders of coarsely ground meat mixed with whole coriander seed, fresh minced chile and onion. Packed onto skewers and fired in the tandoor, they arrived on a sizzle platter with bell pepper, onion and tomato, with lime wedges.
A touch finer were chicken bihari kabobs ($9.99), smoothed out with an infusion of cream.
How many Indian/Pakistani restaurants offer better fresh bread than Clay Handi? Naan. At $1.99, a dinner-plate-sized disc of plain naan - warm, puffy and golden under a colorful cloth - is worth a stop by itself. Garlic naan ($3.99) was topped with bits of cumin seeds, cilantro and fresh garlic softened in the heat.
Onion kulcha ($3.99) was crowned with fire-sweetened diced onion. Parathas - griddled, flaky pancake-like breads - came plain ($2.99) or stuffed with fillings like meat (keema paratha, $4.99).
When the handis started arriving, I wanted to applaud. Beef green handi ($17.99) was fork-shreddable chunks of meat in deeply redolent cilantro sauce, topped, like those to follow, with fresh matchsticked ginger root for pungent crunch. I would have stopped here, though my professional responsibilities required otherwise.
Mutton ginger ($24.99) wasn't as lively, with tougher meat. (Prices are for the small size; many dishes are offered in large, serving four or more. Not available in small: Yemeni whole lamb with salad and yogurt, $399.99.)
Matar paneer ($12.99) offered sautéed cubes of fresh cheese and peas in savory, almost smoky tomato cream. Fish masala ($17.99) was tilapia that had been fried then simmered in a beguiling sauce of ginger, black cumin, black cardamom and other spices. It drew my spoon back time and again, for just one more taste.
The comely spicing of aloo gobi ($9.99), cauliflower and potatoes, showed that vegetables could shine here as well. Malai kofta ($12.99), browned vegetable balls in creamy sauce, were uninvitingly mushy.
A solid version of lamb biryani ($12.99) offered fork-tender meat hidden in a snowdrift of spice-scented basmati rice, topped with fresh cilantro.
Also notable: a cannonball-sized clay jug of mango lassi, ($9.99), enough of the cooling sour-and-sweet yogurt shake to satisfy six. The dairy content makes it an effective fire suppressant, called upon at times even though we asked for medium heat.
Specifically Pakistani dishes include stews like chicken haleem ($14.99), mutton nihari ($19.99) and paya ($14.99).
Some of the prices are a notch higher than most area Indian restaurants, and rice is not included with entrees. But they're fair prices for the quality of cuisine, and a steal compared to lackluster upscale casual restaurants with entrees north of $20. If budget issues press, try the $9.99 platter option, offering smaller portions of two dishes, plus rice, bread and salad.
Handis are important because they allow for a traditional Pakistani style of cooking that's healthier because it retains nutrients and uses less fat, Qazi said. I've never been to Pakistan and am not a dietician, so I am ill-equipped to evaluate those claims.
What I can tell you is that it's the best Indian-ish meal I've had this year. I'd call it a feat of clay.
Clay Handi – 8 plates (out of 10)
Where: 3054 Delaware Ave., Kenmore (877-7797)
Hours: 9 a.m. to midnight.
Prices: Breakfast, $3.99-$14.99; appetizers and soups, $1.99-$12.99; tandoori meat and seafood, $4.99-$24.99; dishes, $9.99-$49.99.
Parking: Lot, street.
Wheelchair accessible: Yes.
Gluten-free: Yes, ask server.