The upside of this gig reviewing restaurants is, well, obvious. The downside, less obvious, is that our professional obligation to try a new menu every week means we seldom get a chance to return to places we've liked. A few of our favorites have actually closed before we could taste their pleasures again. Such was the case with Indica, a tasty Indian bistro in a handsomely converted house on Craig Street.
Fortunately, a new Indian restaurant has moved in and made itself right at home. Tamarind Flavor of India is a sister restaurant to another past favorite of ours, called Tamarind Savoring India, in Scott Township. Tamarind's opening of an urban outpost on Craig Street means two things: one, that southern Indian cuisine is now available without trekking to the suburbs; and two, that one of Pittsburgh's most simply sophisticated dining venues remains open for business. In fact, Tamarind has left the interior exactly the same, down to the gorgeous botanical paintings on the warmly spice-colored walls. This interior being one of the things we remembered most fondly about Indica, you'll hear no complaints from us.
But while Tamarind's suburban location is almost strictly southern Indian, the Oakland version includes more northern Indian favorites, including meat, poultry, seafood and vegetable curries with rice, enabling this new restaurant to both complement and compete with Oakland's other nearby curry houses.
We started with a sampler of vegetarian appetizers, on the one (non-carnivorous) hand, and mixed grill on the other. Vegetable cutlets were savory without being spicy; mirchi bajji (fried chili pepper) had the character of a corn dog, in which the batter is not just a crispy coating, but a substantial part of the flavor. The pepper itself, though, was a bit too assertive, almost harshly spicy. We were intrigued by the samosas, unlike any we've had before. Their creamy, green-tinted filling suggested spinach not just combined but pureed with potato, and their flavor, within delicately crispy pastry, was packed with a variety of vegetal notes.
The sizzling mixed grill, consisting of four favorites from the super-heated tandoor oven, brought mixed results. Two forms of chicken -- boneless, white-meat tikka and a leg and thigh of tandoori -- were both succulent and flavorful, colored bright vermilion by their well-seasoned but not spicy marinades. Several tandoori shrimp looked to offer the same rewards, but the extreme heat dried them out, rendering them chewy but without the tasty sear of pan-frying. Lamb was pressed into sausages, its native flavor balanced well with its seasoning, but it, too, had dried out in the oven.
Poori chole is puffy, fluffy whole wheat bread, baked till it develops a parchment-thin skin enclosing a hot-air bubble. Its airy, greasy (in a good way) texture reminded Jason of funnel cake. If only funnel cake were served with such a hearty chick-pea curry, thick with legumes and complexly flavored with warm Indian spices.
Dosas -- enormous, papery-thin pancakes made from a fermented lentil-rice batter -- are perhaps the definitive southern Indian dish. Tamarind offers several varieties, from which we selected cilantro. Our dosa arrived folded into a triangle to fit the plate; when we unfurled it, the full circle, painted with cilantro chutney, resembled a ringed slice of tree trunk. Its flavor, somewhere between an herbed cracker and a crepe, was complemented by an excellent spicy, sweetly-tangy tomato paste and sambar, a broth for dipping that was chunky enough with vegetables to be eaten as a soup in its own right.
We sampled northern Indian cooking with an okra dish. Though the curry was assertively flavored -- not for the faint of palate -- it didn't obscure the distinctive flavor of the okra. Smooth, creamy yogurt and a mildly bitter Indian beer were the perfect cooling accompaniments to this hot and spicy dish.
Tamarind's expansion to a second location suggests that Pittsburgh is embracing the spicier, brighter flavors of southern India in one of our favorite dining rooms.