I first fell for the sultry pleasures of subcontinental cuisine on a visit to London several years ago. I’d enjoyed the high teas, the fish and chips, and the pub luncheons of shepherd’s pie and Samuel Smith Nut Brown Ale, but a California boy can’t live on such beige-toned provender over the long haul. Soon, I settled into a nightly routine of stuffing my face at one of the half-dozen Indian establishments within walking distance of my hotel. Colonialism may be barbarous in practice, but a century or so of the British Raj certainly did wonders for the London restaurant scene. Tempura-crisp samosas, lush vegetable terrines, moist tandoori meats, cloudlike biryanis, cooling raitas, and tongue-thrashing chutneys made Bloomsbury seem positively civilized.
The food prepared and served at Berkeley’s Tandor Kitchen may not be up to London’s savory high standards — no local Indian or Pakistani restaurant is — but there’s enough zesty character to make a visit worthwhile. It’s located half a dozen blocks from the Cal campus in a tall, airy, light-filled space done up in rich earth tones and industrial-moderne accents. Floor-to-ceiling sliding glass windows look out on Telegraph Avenue, stairs lead to a secluded mezzanine and a lovely al fresco veranda complete with arbor and songbirds, and the counter and open kitchen thrum with professional economy. The operation itself is primarily self-serve: after ordering your food, the affable counterman invites you to “make yourself at home” and to avail yourself of the water pitchers, cutlery and napkins.
Traditional Indian dining often involves sampling a wide variety of dishes served in smallish portions, and Tandor Kitchen’s menu items, non-gigantic in size yet entirely satisfying and extremely affordable, encourage the time-honored smorgasbord approach. A fine example is palak paneer, in which fresh chopped spinach is cooked with housemade paneer cheese cubes and just enough herb and spice to accent the vegetable’s rich, pungent character. Another vegetarian dish, malai kofta, combines chopped carrots and cauliflower with cheese, almonds, and pureed potato into globes served in a creamy chili-nutmeg sauce; the result was heavy and surprisingly bland. Samosa, India’s contribution to the savory-turnover genre, also suffered from too much dry, dense stuff — the fried breading was cumbersome rather than crisp, and the insides were more dried-out potato than anything else. But the house pakora — spinach-potato balls jazzed with onion and coriander, doused in chickpea flour and deep fried — were crunchy on the outside, luscious on the inside, and spiky-savory throughout. Raita, housemade yogurt flavored with mint and cucumber, made a wonderfully soothing complement.
My fallback dish at Indian restaurants — the thing I order as a litmus test, out of pure laziness, or because I hunger for it in the same way I dream about enchiladas verde, or a medium-rare burger — is tandoori anything. This North Indian cooking style, in which chicken or lamb is marinated in yogurt, garlic, ginger, and saffron, then skewered and baked in a big jar-shaped clay oven over a layer of glowing charcoal, results in juicy, tender meat thoroughly redolent not only of the smoky charcoal and the tangy marinade but the delicious flavors the clay walls have absorbed over time. In the coastal areas around Mumbai, fish and seafood get the tandoor treatment as well, and Tandor Kitchen’s catfish rendition was delectable. Moist chunks of succulent, meaty, bone-in catfish were draped in crisp blackened skin sweet and hot with herb and spice; a supple, smoky treat.
The tandoori chicken, while pleasantly spicy and flavorful, was overcooked and dry (as was the chicken tika masala, a classic curry-like preparation rescued here by the dish’s remarkable cream sauce, a bisque-like concoction ribboned with pureed tomato and errant heat). But the tandoori oven also produces India’s wonderful naan bread, flat, curd-leavened loaves with a pillowy consistency perfect for cushioning the complex, sultry flavors of the meats and vegetables. Tandor Kitchen produces several naans, one plain and four others ribboned with garlic, or onion, or ground lamb, or bits of potato and scallion; the latter was particularly delicious.
The restaurant also offers three varieties of wrap that encapsulate the subcontinental culinary experience in easy-to-carry miniature. The seekh kebab wrap, for instance, wraps a warm-from-the-tandoori naan around a potent sausage of coarsely ground lamb spiked with chilies and ginger plus chopped onion, crisp romaine lettuce, and a sparkling, palate-cleansing mint chutney; the result was like an insanely delicious hot dog, lush and spicy and crunchy and tender all at once. (Also available: a wrap stuffed with boneless chicken and chutney and a vegetarian wrap packed with tomatoes, potatoes, lettuce, mint, cilantro, and cucumbers.)
For 25 centuries, vegetarianism has been a way of life throughout much of India, where Hindu doctrine, economic necessity, and an abundance of fruits, vegetables, and grains (particularly in southern India) have made meatless fare the status quo. Tandor Kitchen continues the tradition with a wide array of critter-friendly dishes. The menu’s thirteen vegetarian entrée options include the palak paneer and the malai kofta as well as three masalas and herbed and spiced ragouts fragrant with eggplant, spinach, lentils, cauliflower, potatoes, garbanzos, peas, paneer, and a bazaar’s worth of spices in several delectable combinations. Snacks and side dishes include the pakoras, samosas, and raita plus the veggie wrap, a vegetable biryani, and the four kinds of naan bread.
Tandor Kitchen doesn’t serve wine or beer, but soft drinks are available along with lassi, the thick, refreshing yogurt drink; the house version introduces ripe pureed mango into the mix and is as sweet and luscious as a milkshake. The official dessert menu, meanwhile, offers two options. Kheer, a Pakistani rice pudding made with milk, sugar and cardamom, is a sweet, subtly flavored dish with an overly soupy consistency and a thick layer of film on top. Gulab jaman, one of the subcontinent’s traditional syrup-based sweets, was more agreeable. Balls of dough are fried in butter oil and served in a sugary syrup … not exactly health food, but a satisfying meal-closer just the same.