A lot of people consider Indian cuisine to be too exotic for their tastes. And with just cause: Dishes are a rich assault of sight, smell and taste; aromatic and flavorful, made complex by a combination of herbs and spices. Its not for everyone.
But if youre willing to try the unordinary (and extraordinary), Tandoor in Arlington, open since 1985, is the perfect place to start a delectable adventure. Actually, it is officially my most delectable adventure of the year so far. A huge surprise, considering my favorite restaurant of last year was a barbecue joint.
Inside, the fragrant scent of boiled, seasoned rice hovers over the tables its definitely my kind of place. The menu has roots in the Mughal era, a time period of Indian culture stretching over three centuries. Like other subgenres of Indian cooking, Mughal-inspired dishes are savory and spicy.
And like Middle Eastern dishes, ingredients are crisp and fresh. The kachumber salad ($2.50) with fresh cucumbers, green peppers and tomatoes in lemon juice with spices is a perfect example. Its lively, light and extra-tangy.
For something familiar, go for the vegetable samosas ($2.95), crispy fritters stuffed with perfectly cooked spicy potatoes and peas; for the unique, try the dahi balla ($2.95), lentil cakes covered in a creamy whipped yogurt and sweetened chutney a delicacy in India with a consistency similar to oatmeal.
The dinner menu is split into different sections, featuring beef, chicken and lamb specialties. Theres also Tandoor Namoone, a group of dishes cooked in a tandoor, or clay oven, which is also the inspiration behind the restaurants name.
The mixed grill ($11.95) is a combination of most of the tandoor plates, including tandoori chicken and shrimp (marinated), chicken tikka (boneless, seasoned chicken) and seekh kebabs (ground lamb).
With the exception of the lamb, which was somewhat dry, we were impressed with the meat combination on the mixed grill. The tandoori chicken, overall, was the favorite extremely ambrosial and succulent. And the ground lamb, while not as moist, had an animated, spicy flavor without being overly seasoned.
Chicken and seafood meats are marinated overnight in a sauce consisting of garlic, ginger and yogurt, and then broiled over charcoal in the tandoor. Its no wonder we had such admiration for the poultry.
Another section, roti, consists of breads made in the tandoor oven. The kashmiri naan ($2.25), leavened bread stuffed with pieces of barbecued chicken, is served as wedges with crispy edges.
But the one dish that defined our evening and was by far the best example of how robust and complex Indian food can be was the barra kebab masala ($11.95), with tender chunks of lamb in an herb-and-tomato sauce with butter. It went well with the kashmiri special pilau ($6.95), saffron-flavored basmati rice sauteed with fruits, vegetables and nuts.
The sauce was the highlight of the dish: bright, creamy, intensely herbal and seriously full-bodied. It makes for an exotic culinary masterpiece.
We ended the evening with gulab jamun ($2.25), a dessert of fried dough in a cup of sweet, honey-blasted syrup. If you are new to the cuisine, the daily lunch buffet might be the best place to start. It is served daily (11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.), is $6.95-$8.95, and includes a lot of the dishes on the dinner menu.
A buffet at the Tandoor sounds like a mighty fine idea for the second part of our delectable adventure.