A muted visit to Mumbai
By Lavanya Ramanathan
Friday, November 9, 2012
Cooler days are prime time for foods that warm you from within. Tandoori Nights, the 10-year-old Indian chainlet that added a third location last fall in Bethesda’s restaurant row, reliably brings the heat.
The dishes in Bethesda don’t vary much from those at Gaithersburg’s Kentlands shopping strip or in Clarendon, but the restaurant, which occupies a space left behind by Delhi Dhaba, is the most modern. Waiters take your orders using iPhones. The space, draped in shades of goldenrod and rust with glints of graphite, manages to evoke India without bombastic Bollywood touches. Of the three, it’s the best for an elegant date night.
You’ll do well to graze on the small plates, which aren’t all that small. Diners enamored of the crispy spinach appetizer at the two Rasika restaurants in the District might be surprised to learn that a handful of flash-fried copycats lurks on area menus. The crackling Kurkure Hariyali ($5.99) at Tandoori Nights has a heavier robe of sweet-and-sour tamarind and tart yogurt, but it’s otherwise satisfyingly close to the downtown favorite.
Other treats here are popular snack foods from street stands abroad that are rarely found on menus stateside. “Chicken 65” ($9.99), for example, is a tangy Southern Indian take on fried chicken. While pakora at some Indian restaurants are too thickly covered in chickpea-flour batter, Tandoori Nights uses a light hand with its fritters, producing cubes of homemade cheese ($6.99) with a crunch. A brief dip in a pool of coriander chutney brightens them further.
The entire subcontinent is represented on the unusually deep menu, with coastal Goan-style coconut-laced fish as well as the possibly British-born chicken tikka masala. But the dozens of entrees fail to consistently wow.
The vegetarian chef’s special is delivered from its clay oven in a smoking skillet like Mumbai’s answer to fajitas. The mix of pineapple, cauliflower, cheese and peppers is scorched so dry that we give up on it in a few bites. Standard fare, such as the soft-cheese-and-potato dumplings swimming in a mildly sweet tomato-cream sauce ($11.99), is more rewarding, particularly if sopped up with the nan stuffed with a thin layer of cashew and raisin. Of the stir-fries, the julienne okra kicked up with mango powder is delightfully bold, unlike the cauliflower and potato tossed with ginger, garlic and tomatoes (both $11.99).
Be adventurous when picking your poison. The unusual curry leaf-scented mojito was nearly gone before my meal arrived. And if you need something to tame the heat, try the cucumber-based “kachumber” cooler: It puts the fire on ice.