Thanks to the peripatetic nature of Charlotte's restaurant industry, you never know when you will encounter a familiar face, or style, or distinct taste. Tamarind: Fine Indian Cuisine materialized in a dated Matthews shopping center a few months ago without much hype.
Chef and owner Bhim Thapa, a native of Nepal, gained his culinary experience in the vast kitchens of an extraordinary five-star hotel in India where he specialized in crafting Indian and Chinese dishes. But I became familiar with Thapa's attention to detail at Blue Taj and Persis Biryani Indian Grill, both in Ballantyne. As an Indian ex-pat recently told me: Thapa is the real deal.
Now, this talented chef is crafting his riff-driven Indian classics in his own place, a tastefully appointed, albeit small, storefront space complete with overhead filament lighting, wood table tops with votive candles and miniature terrariums, and comfortable metal chairs. While his menu has the usual suspects — tandoor, curries, masala, rogan josh — Thapa is the obsessive tinkerer, making dishes new again with impeccable ingredients and a creative touch with spices. Dishes are deceptively sophisticated and brawny.
The first dish I sampled on my initial visit was the large Delhi-styled samosa with a deliciously spicy interior. This was followed by fresh-baked rosemary and thyme naan, and aloo methi paratha stuffed with spiced potato mash and infused with fenugreek leaves. We put in more orders for breads — we wanted to taste them all, including the apricot naan we saved for dessert.
Among the successful large plate items is a quintessential chicken tikka masala with wonderfully tender bits of tandoori chicken showered in a sauce as smooth as proverbial silk and served with springy long grains of basmati, light and fluffy in texture. In another dish, raw slivers of mango boasted a bit of acidity to a densely flavored chicken curry. And the succulent tandoor seekh kebab (minced lamb) made irresistible by a balanced lacing of spices and tomato cilantro chutney is just sublime.
Heat levels are prescribed by diners: one to four. No worries, though. The servers are savvy and will translate your preferences fairly accurately.
The inexpensive express lunch ($9 tp $12) with naan, rice, soup or salad, has eight vegetarian dishes, and seven with chicken, lamb or shrimp. What is missing at Tamarind is the wine and beer license which is expected to be issued by the end of September.
Once again, Matthews scores big in an ethnic eatery. While I still miss the Saturday dim sum trolley at the closed Dynasty, the nearby Kabab-Je Rotisserie & Grille has the best Lebanese dishes in town. Now there's Tamarind, offering robust, undiluted creative Indian dishes with unfailingly friendly service. Lucky Matthews.