Location: 4519 Centre Ave., Oakland. 412-688-8388
Hours: Mon.-Sun. 11 a.m.-10 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers $2-5; entrees $6-9
Atmosphere: Pastels and spice
Smoking: None Permitted
Almost alone among foreign cuisines, Indian restaurants have somehow avoided the dumbing-down process that has accompanied assimilation to the American palate. It's not that the dishes in Oakland are exactly the same as those in Indore -- availability of ingredients alone is a barrier to that -- or that regional diversity hasn't been blurred. But, while menus at most American Indian restaurants tend to list the same familiar dishes, those seem to be fairly authentic, with fewer of the lost-in-translation adaptations that have become the bane of, say, Chinese restaurants. (Chop suey, anyone?)
While this is generally a good thing, the homogenization of Indian menus can make it hard for the best restaurants to stand out. Tandoor -- the fourth consecutive Indian eatery in its location on Centre Avenue -- is one that has begun taking steps toward differentiating itself.
The first, and striking, distinction is a visual one. On the cover of the menu, an array of colorful spices, the hallmark of Indian cuisine, fills nine round metal bowls in an appealingly photographed image. Though the dining room mostly recycles the perfectly serviceable décor of the previous occupant, this identification of Tandoor with the colors, textures and flavors of Indian spices continues with the glass display jars filled with layers of legumes, seeds and powders, which resemble the sand art that children make at street fairs. For those familiar, it's a sort of recognition test of seasonings; for the novice, it's a visual reminder that the jar of curry powder on the supermarket shelf is an innovation of colonialism, not culinary heritage.
Tandoor's menu offers the usual curries, kormas, vindaloos and biryanis at impressively low prices, with no item more than $10. The savings aren't in entrée portions, but appear to come in more modest servings of rice and an absence of complimentary pappadam bread, a trade-off we are perfectly happy to make.
The menu also features a pair of innovations that should have Indian restaurateurs across the country striking their foreheads and crying out, "Why didn't I think of that?": tandoori wings and kebab wraps. After all, what is a more natural translation than offering succulent, clay-oven-fired chicken in finger-friendly wing form, or wrapping spiced and seasoned meats in fresh-baked Indian flatbread to make a sandwich?
Tandoor's execution proved as good as the concept, with the wings as crispy and flavorful as any beer-night special, their coating tangy with a generous citrus kick. The wrap -- we chose the fried-fish version -- was as superb as it was simple, with the moist fish aromatically spiced and the bread an airy, flaky conveyance. Both dishes were served with green chutney, a spicy, chili-based sauce that allows the adventurous diner to lay on plenty of Indian heat.
Tandoor is also the first local Indian restaurant we know of to offer chats, Indian snacks traditionally sold by street vendors and designed, like a hot dog or pizza slice, for eating on the run. Chatpapri, likened by our server to "Indian nachos," featured crisp, cracker-like flatbread chips smothered in sweet, fruity tamarind sauce, seasoned yogurt, chick peas and cilantro. Had the toppings been drizzled over the chips with some restraint, the combination of flavors might have been irresistible. But in great dollops, the toppings soon merged into a thick soup that drowned the bread beneath. Samosa chat was a less sweet, spicier array of toppings layered over Indian vegetable fritters. The samosas seemed to be high quality – tender and not mushy -- but we had to fish for them under the sea of sauces. It was hard for us to imagine consuming these messy dishes as street food. But then, this was our first experience with chats.
When an Indian restaurant offers goat, one of us usually takes it up. Tandoor's goat biryani was different from the biryanis we're used to: It contained peanuts and a hard-boiled egg, but scant caramelized onions, our favorite part. Nonetheless, the rice was fluffy and tender, as in a good pilaf, and the goat was flavorful and moist, devoid of any unwelcome notes of gaminess.
Angelique ordered chicken tikka masala, a favorite dish, and enjoyed Tandoor's version thoroughly. The chicken was so tender it almost melted into the sauce, which had an agreeably tangy note acting as counterpoint to its heat. Fresh, crisp chopped scallions, also present in a companion's lamb saag, provided textural interest as well as extra zip, while underneath it all, the basmati rice was nutty and aromatic.
At Tandoor, dishes familiar to us in name nevertheless featured distinctive flavors and ingredients, and innovations designed to bridge Indian and American tastes were delightful. In its efforts to break out of the straightjacket that makes some restaurants feel rote, Tandoor seems destined to introduce new diners to Indian cuisine, and seasoned diners to new tastes.