Restaurant Review: Tandoor aims for wide appeal - and succeeds

SIZZLING TANDOOR

Address: 637 Johnson St. Tel: 250-388-5450

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Hours: Reservations recommended. Open daily 11: 30 a.m. - 2: 30 p.m.; 5 p.m. to 9 p.m.

Hours may be extended in the summer.

Major credit cards and Interac accepted. Wheelchair accessible.

Rating 5

Narpinder Bawa has never run her own restaurant before, but you wouldn't know it. After dabbling in a pair of familyowned restaurants in Washington state, she and husband Gurinder decided a combination of his family recipes and their own creations would allow them to make a go of things on the site of the former Maharaja restaurant.

After three months of renovations, they opened for business last November. Today, visitors will find pistachio walls, pendant lighting and dark wood accents.

Attractive decor aside, for me the single criterion for a good first impression at any Indian restaurant is olfactory, and the Sizzling Tandoor did not disappoint.

Lori, John and I were seduced by the aromas of roast cumin, onions, fenugreek, ginger and achars as we crossed the threshold.

The menu is designed to have broad appeal. A good selection of traditional dishes share space with others reinterpreted for Western palates and fusion items for those not quite ready to dive into the cuisine of the subcontinent.

We nibbled complimentary pappadums while we waited for appetizers. When they arrived, the only problem was deciding which we liked best. We chose a tender kabuli naan from the many stuffed breads available. Filled with nuts, raisins and cherries, this is exactly what you want to savour on a rainy day with a good cup of chai. Savoury options with ground lamb or freshly made paneer with a dish of lentils would make a light, nutritious meal.

Tandoori chicken wings were moist and loaded with flavour; vegetable samosas were hot, crisp and filled with fluffy potato, peas and mixed spices. We also loved the lightly battered chicken pakoras made with a trio of flours. All came with freshly pickled onion and a duo of chutneys: tangy tamarind and another crafted with fresh coriander and mint. Other appetizers such as curried mussels in garlic sauce and seared potato patties spiked with chili and ginger will undoubtedly add to the dilemma on subsequent visits.

Lori was intrigued by one of the fusion dishes, something we agreed could be really good - or really bad. It turns out that fettucine Alfredo tossed with herbs and chicken tikka lands squarely in the good column; in fact, Lori returned for the tandoori prawn version for lunch the next day.

John and I were equally rewarded with a spiced spinach purée with tender potato, moist chicken in a golden coconut curry, and the house specialty of lamb rogan josh with chunks of lean lamb in a sauce crafted from tomatoes, ginger, garlic, onions, and myriad herbs and spices. It was the best version of this dish I have encountered in North America. Everything was mopped up with basmati rice and a flaky paratha flatbread layered with fresh mint.

Wine is available, but we all prefer beer with Indian food, so we quaffed Tiger beer and mango lemonade.

John summed up the food well when he commented that this was the first time that he felt as if he were in a real Indian restaurant in downtown Victoria. I understand this. While there are a number of competitors in this category, most do a number of things well but cut noticeable corners.

Here, everything was carefully prepared with quality ingredients - no bones with a bit of chicken attached or tough meat.

Sauces are rich, complex and substantial. You won't find watery curries or a menu with all dishes developed from the same base.

Vegetarian options are especially good, and heat levels are customized. We chose medium and a dish of lime pickle to appease my insanely heat-tolerant palate. This, too, was homemade, and Lori noted it didn't have the bitter aftertaste that says, "Hi! I come from a big jar."

Music was appropriate in selection and volume, service both exceptionally friendly and informed, unlike the last downtown Indian restaurant John and I visited, which offered a buffet of leftovers and attitude.

The Bawas have figured out the formula to a successful restaurant - good food and service equals return business. They will do well here. The only change I would make is to serve food at a slightly higher temperature and to use warm plates.

When you review a restaurant, you typically order more than you can eat. Carefully packaged leftovers made an equally fine meal the next day. If you dine a la carte, though it's not cheap, you could stuff yourself and have a drink for under $30. If you visit at lunch, you also have the option of the substantial buffet, offering several meat and vegetable curries along with salads and desserts for $12.

RATINGS

Rating 1 Below bad

Rating 2 Below average

Rating 3 Average

Rating 4 Above average

Rating 5 Excellent

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