Tandoori Village

$$$$ ($15-$24)
Tandoori Village photo
Richard A. Lipski/The Post

Editorial Review

NOTE: During the week the restaurant serves a lunch buffet. There is also a weekend brunch buffet.

It's surprising to drive by the small building that for so many years housed Chez Marc in Manassas and find that the once-venerable restaurant has been replaced by a Punjabi restaurant, Tandoori Village. The bigger surprise comes when you step through the new heavily carved and decorated door into what could be an elegant restaurant in a village in northern India or Pakistan.

The same heavily carved motifs decorate the tables (glass panels give the tables an even eating surface) and the backs of the sturdy chairs. The fat legs of the tables remind me of the legs of elephants. Terracotta tiles cover the floors, and wispy panels of golden and orange silk, with just the slightest bit of bead trim, float from the ceilings. More intricately beaded panels separate the reception area from the dining room and close off the entrance to the kitchen.

Abida Wahla and her husband, Afzal, opened Tandoori Village in April. The couple imported all of the restaurant's decorations from Dubai, but the cooking is from their native Pakistan.

The Punjab region spans the northern parts of India and Pakistan, and the cuisine is based on the tandoor, the large clay oven in which many of the foods are cooked. "Our cooking is the home-style cooking of the region," Abida Wahla explained. "We have many dishes you won't find anywhere else."

The menu isn't filled with the standard curries of most Indian restaurants. Many of the dishes here are dry curries, which incorporate the spices of the region but not large amounts of liquid. They are intriguing and rich and the flavors are multilayered.

If Chez Marc was once the most exotic restaurant in Prince William County, Tandoori Village carries on that distinction and wears the mantle well. Tandoori Village also practices Muslim dietary requirements, or halal, which means its meats are slaughtered and butchered to specific standards. The restaurant doesn't serve alcoholic beverages, but the lassi (yogurt drink) is very good.

Aloo chaat papri is one of the dishes you won't find most places. Chaats are Indian-style snacks. This one is chickpeas, potatoes, onions and fresh cilantro in a mango chutney and yogurt sauce topped with crispy bits of fried wheat dough. The combination is almost irresistible, a wonderfully savory way to begin a meal.

There are two versions of samosas, the traditional Indian pastry. The keema samosa, filled with ground beef, is the better of the two and one of the few beef dishes on the extensive menu. The spiced potato and vegetable version (milijuli sabzi samosa) doesn't have the intense flavoring of the beef variety.

The tandoori special platter, another appetizer, is a way to sample the variety of foods cooked in that style: tandoori chicken, chicken tikka, tandoori shrimp and two types of minced meat kebab. These items, most of which are marinated in a yogurt sauce, retain their moisture in the intense heat of the tandoor. The tandoori chicken, served on the bone, is flavorful, but the boneless murgh tikka (murgh means chicken) is even better. It has a rich orange color from the spices in the marinade, which permeate the chunks of tender white meat and give them a slightly pungent juiciness. These same chunks of chicken are married with a tomato-based gravy for the succulent murgh makhan masala (butter chicken).

Although all of the dishes are listed by their Punjabi names, Abida Wahla explained that each word translates literally. Tawa murgh masala, a dish of spiced chicken, is cooked in a skillet, or tawa.

But the joys of Tandoori Village aren't limited to treats from the tandoor. The karahi gosht, available with or without the bone, is marinated bits of lamb, cooked with sliced red onions and fine slivers of ginger and garlic, that give off a heady perfume as the dish arrives at the table. And it tastes as good as it smells. Like most of the dishes, it's served with clove-accented basmati rice that is a treat in itself.

There are at least 10 vegetable dishes, including preparations of chickpeas, kale and spinach, potatoes and cauliflower and lentils. The bhindi dopiaza, an okra dish, is not the least bit slimy. It is prepared with a tomato and onion masala sauce that is earthy and almost sweet at the same time.

And then there are the breads, another glory from the tandoor. These aren't dainty rounds, but great slabs, steaming hot and flavored with onion or green chili and coriander. It's hard not to just concentrate on the eight kinds of bread.

Although some of the servers have difficulty with English, ask for explanations and one of the Wahlas is apt to arrive to help decipher the menu. Afzal Wahla and his family have a long history of serving English speakers; the family formerly owned three Punjabi restaurants in Scotland. Afzal and Abida Wahla have been in this country for about seven years and have owned several Bagels shops in the area, including a current location in Ashburn.

In addition to the a la carte menu, Tandoori Village serves a luncheon buffet during the week, a brunch buffet on weekends with dishes including halwa, puri, pratha and haleem, and will even prepare a complete meal for carryout.

--Nancy Lewis (Nov. 22, 2007)