Passage to India
In a Snowstorm, Every Meal Tells a Story
The Roundhouse Storm of '03 wasn't good for business. By Wednesday, the restaurants that managed to stay open the first few days found themselves running out of food when their vendors couldn't make deliveries. What the storm was good for, though, was the creation of good restaurant narratives, our personal tales of the brave little taverns whose staffs worked around the clock, and of the despotic owners who made them do it.
Even absent historic snowfalls, it's natural to want to make a restaurant review into a kind of narrative, a story about a group of people eating a meal in a place. It's especially tempting to resort to narrative when lots of funny mishaps befall the dining party, or when the personnel of the restaurant in question all but insist to be written in as characters--whether it's a waiter as stock villain, or, like with Davinder Singh, our host and waiter at India Tandoor, as the enterprising and funny young hero in the story of his own restaurant's life. He's a Morris Martick for the 21st century.
We first met him shoveling snow outside of India Tandoor, dressed in the cap and fleece vest that he wore throughout the meal. He took us inside the small, storefront dining room, where he had lit candles on our table and folded our napkins with particular care. We had called earlier in the day to make sure the restaurant was staying open and that its larder was fully stocked, which Davinder assured us it was, encouraging us to make reservations. We were that evening's sole dining party--not surprising considering the still hairy driving and parking conditions--but it would be impossible to imagine anyone being treated any less graciously.
What a nasty story it would be, then, if India Tandoor's food sucked. Fortunately, for everyone in our story, the kitchen turned out perfectly decent Indian cuisine; if it never quite delivered any knockout surprises, it never disappointed, either. On this particular evening, Davinder's brother was running the kitchen, and it might have been my imagination, but the food did have about it a homemade quality that we really appreciated, even when our meal took its time arriving.
A bowl of lentil-based vegetable soup ($1.95), Davinder told us, achieved its dense flavor thanks to ground lentils. We could, in fact, hear the lentils being ground in the kitchen. The traditional sauces--tamarind and green chili--that came with our complimentary chapathi bread tasted freshly made, too, although everyone, including Davinder, agreed that the tamarind sauce was too catsup-y sweet. I wasn't thrilled, though, with a fish pakora appetizer ($4.25), which I didn't think was fishy enough.
Vegetarians know to rely on Indian restaurants for carefully balanced, nutritive, and, above all, flavorful preparations of legumes, grains, and vegetables. Our party of four included two shunners of meat and poultry who were very pleased by the assortment of treats that appeared on a combination platter of appetizers ($5.95) and the vegetable thaali ($11.95), a dinner-sized assortment of vegetarian dishes and saffron rice. Best of all on the appetizer platter were the samosas with their crisp, buttery tasting pastry shells and warm fillings of potatoes and peas, and the scrumptious onion bhajia, thin slices of onion deep fried in chickpea butter.
In general, India Tandoor does better with its drier preparations of coarser vegetables like potatoes and chickpeas than it does with the kormas, creamier concoctions of vegetables like spinach, which have a tendency to run too thin. Having said that, the kitchen has a deft touch with spices. Especially flavorful was the complex and hearty sauce that came with the very tender chunks of marinated grilled lamb of the boti kebab masala ($12.95). Also delish was the gravy accompanying the Malabar lobster ($16.95), a hearty stew of seafood and vegetables. Even at its spiciest, the food never quite reached vindaloo-like extremes of temperature. Heat-seekers will either have to adjust their palates or convince Davinder that they can take the fire.
Davinder tells us he's considering including a buffet option for evening diners. A trip to the daily buffet ($4.95) suggests that this would be a welcome option, even if there are clearly fewer options than are offered at the Indian restaurants in Mount Vernon, and if a few of the dishes could use some thickening up. India Tandoor is just a block away from the new Station North arts district, and the restaurant filled up on a Friday afternoon with young artists and other neighborhood workers, many of them apparent regulars who have come to rely on India Tandoor and to watch Davinder grow into his role as a great Baltimore character.
One mo' Mo: firstname.lastname@example.org.