December 2, 2012

Dine out Maine: Tandoor still satisfies when craving for Indian food strikes

By Shonna Milliken Humphrey

click image to enlarge

Tandoor, on upper Exchange Street in Portland, serves reliably tasty, home-style Indian cuisine at affordable prices.

Photos by John Ewing/Staff Photographer

click image to enlarge

DINING REVIEW

TANDOOR

88 Exchange St., Portland 775-4259

***1/2

HOURS: 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Monday to Thursday; 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 3:30 to 9:30 p.m. Sunday

PRICE RANGE: $2.95 to $22.95, with most dinner entrees in the $12 to $13 range

BAR: Limited wine and beer selection

CREDIT CARDS: All major

KIDS: No children's menu

VEGETARIAN-FRIENDLY: Very

RESERVATIONS: Not necessary

BOTTOM LINE: Tandoor remains a staunch presence in the Old Port, ready with primarily northern Indian standards. Although undeniably kitschy, Tandoor is also undeniably homey and welcoming. For an affordable and tasty Indian feast, Tandoor is a solid downtown option.

Ratings follow this scale and take into consideration food, atmosphere, service and value: *Poor  **Fair  ***Good ****Excellent *****Extraordinary. The Maine Sunday Telegram visits an establishment twice if the first dining experience was unsatisfactory. The reviewer dines anonymously.

An upper Exchange Street fixture for as long as I can remember, Tandoor's green awning and decorative elephant window welcome patrons with a familiar greeting. The decor? Undeniably kitschy, with colorful hand-painted walls, ornate sleigh-style booths, fabric-covered ceiling tiles and a Bollywood-inspired revolving crystal light fixture.

Tandoor is not elegant, but the restaurant provides a fair interpretation of home-style Indian cuisine that many Mainers have come to expect and love.

Over cold Kingfisher beer ($3.95) and sweet mango lassi ($3.50), I counted more than 75 menu items. Even though the menu reads long, all the offerings felt familiar, and Dal Mahkani, Chicken Tikka and Garlic Naan stared back at me in print like old friends.

I can argue that organic, locally-sourced, free-range ingredients make for superior dining and that delicate preparation signals a higher quality experience. But sometimes, I just want comfort food in the form of a deep-fried samosa filled with soft potato and redolent with a mixture of Indian spices.

When that's the craving, it does not matter if the potatoes are organic or the peas locally sourced. The food must be affordable, and the restaurant close by.

Tandoor offers this. The friendly staff was quick to greet and pull tables together for our party of five. While being seated, I met the diner next to us and learned that she visits the restaurant almost every week. When asked for her suggestions, she advised an off-menu item, Baingan Bhartha, from the kitchen. (A bhartha is a minced or mashed vegetable, and baingan refers to eggplant.) The kitchen obliged, and the eggplant's smoky flavor made the dish a favorite at our table.

Naan ($2.50), leavened bread made by slapping dough to the sides of a tandoor, prompted some interesting research about these traditional ovens. The small, portable clay variety has evolved over time, and now chefs enjoy tandoors made of stainless steel, copper and rope. Square or drum-shaped, fancy tandoors boast granite or tile tops, some with attached wheels or a detachable trolley base. For tandoor lovers living in small spaces, there are electric toaster-oven sizes.

While the tandoor's external evolution is marked, the premise remains simple: Heat an oven to a high temperature and cook bread along its walls.

Tandoor's tandoor produced a puffy, if somewhat charred, bread with the chewy texture that naan lovers often crave as base for the traditional threesome of condiment chutneys: Coriander-mint, onion and tamarind. All three chutneys -- the brown, the pink and the green -- arrived like the naan, exactly as expected.

The Kingfisher (marketed as the "King of Good Times"), a light-tasting, malty and somewhat sweet beer, was cold, as was the mango lassi, a traditional yogurt-based beverage flavored with sweet mango puree. The Kingfisher tasted especially refreshing as the five of us sampled the Tandoor Special ($7.95) of Samosa, Aloo Tikki, Paneer Pakora and Papadam.

Papadam -- crispy wafers made from lentils and black pepper -- tops my favorites list, and Tandoor's version was light and brittle -- a mix of cracker, potato chip and pretzel sensation. If you have not tasted this Indian standard, I recommend you do so.

Paneer Pakora is a homemade cheese that's similar to cottage cheese in taste and fresh mozzarella in texture, rolled in chickpea flour and deep-fried. Aloo Tikki is listed as a packet of spiced, deep-fried vegetables, and I place great emphasis on the delicious "deep fried" aspects. Aloo Tikki and Mango Chutney ($2) -- mmm.

Shrimp Vindaloo ($14.95), a Bay of Bengal outlier from the otherwise northern Indian food at Tandoor, arrived with medium heat as requested. I am told this spicy potato-meat stew originated in the Portuguese-Indian colony of Goa, and it takes its name from the translation of two main ingredients: Vinho (wine or wine vinegar) and alhos (garlic).

Saag Paneer ($12.50), yet another standard, combines spinach and the same paneer cheese in a creamy yogurt sauce, while Chicken Biryani ($12.95) is a favorite for rice lovers, with tender pieces of chicken and basmati rice cooked in a mix of raisins and nuts. Again, no surprises with these traditional favorites.

All entrees were served in ample portions, and four entrees with the appetizer sampler fed five of us with leftovers. The bill, less than $100, included drinks (minus gratuity) and makes Tandoor a cost-conscious option for those wanting to treat a crowd.

Tandoor is not haute cuisine, nor is it fusion of the month. Are there other Indian restaurants using ingredients with more subtle, layered flavors and more delicate preparations? For sure. But Tandoor delivers what it promises, and has done so for years: No-frills, consistent, tasty comfort standards in a fun space. I hope it continues to do so for many years to come.

Shonna Milliken Humphrey is a Maine freelance writer and author of the novel "Show Me Good Land."

 

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