Whenever I ask Indian ex-pats where they go to get the best Indian food, they typically answer, "At home." But, Indian restaurateurs tell me on a rather consistent basis that in the past few years Charlotte has the increased population of both the Indian ex-pats and American communities to support the emergence of "upscale" Indian restaurants. No longer should the tedious lunch buffet be the majority option.
Charlotte, however, is still far from being a proving ground for the novelty naans or high-flying tasting menus that have avid devotees in New York and London. Instead, the latest venture by veteran restaurateur Bhupen Engineer aspires less to break new ground than to build on old taste memories.
Engineer made his reputation by his artful version of Indian hospitality at Bombay Cuisine in the University area, and then opened a small depot downtown. Engineer is known for his attention to detail: copper hammered bowls and utensils imported from the subcontinent and traditionally used in Indian wedding ceremonies. In November 2006, he opened the ambitious 90-seat Tamarind: Fine Indian Cuisine on Carmel Road. This site has changed hands more than a few times recently and left the new owner with the challenge of a Santorini blue ceiling and wall windows. Engineer, however, has covered the walls with soothing wall murals and Indian art while painting the ceilings black to create an off-hours refuge. The space is instantly welcoming and energized.
Engineer is another restaurateur trying to get Charlotteans to stop equating Indian cuisine with characterless curry, trays of papadam and cheap food. Hopefully Charlotte's culinary landscape has expanded enough to allow the Indian buffet lunch places to exist with the inexpensive street food eateries as well as full scale, higher-end restaurants that combine up-market renditions with eclectic wine selections.
Such is Tamarind. Engineer has employed three native Indian chefs to cover the geographically diverse menu and two primary regions: north and south. Yet not all items are expected: Among the appetizers is stir-fried calamari and chicken fritters a la Indochinese. Both are made tableside. Tamarind's menu headlines with the requisite notes: tandoor, chicken, seafood, lamb, goat, vegetables and rice. Charming copper entrée warmers ward off the cold.
The kitchen's appetizers could prompt a sing-along: The sampler plate offers spunky potatoes cakes, vibrant spinach fritters, a crispy samosa and a wonderfully restrained spinach and cheese kebab. The breads -- naans, poori, roti, paratha, kulcha -- are Indian's endearing culinary gifts to the world and caused a crop of grabby hands at my table. So luscious are the breads when hot and dipped into a heady perfumed gravy, diners could easily forgo entrees altogether.
Yet the entrees are the strength of the kitchen. The cuts of grilled lamb in the pasanda bathed unabashedly in a luxuriating saffron pool of apricots and cashews.
Even better is the malai halibut with winter white bits of ocean flesh delightfully spiffed up in a full-flavored shower of coconut and ginger. The soulful chicken tikka is perfunctory, but the flavors of the basil in the chicken kebab from the tandoor are upfront.
If these dishes, even the array of "fiery" vindaloos, seem to have a nagging lack of pungency, ask the kitchen to ratchet it up. Tamarind's kitchen will err on the side of mellow unless instructed otherwise.
In addition to the wine and beer lists are mango and sweet lassis, teas and coffees. Desserts offer no culinary revelations: a mango ginger ice cream, cottage cheese dumplings, a mango cheesecake and the Indian version of Greek loukamades, fried doughnut holes in honey syrup.
Yet flavors at Tamarind will consistently surprise you. What I most enjoyed was the four-top across the room. When their food arrived that was much discussion, then they signaled for their server and asked what it was they had ordered and which dish was what. What a delightful approach to a new cuisine.
The downside seemed to be the service. One server -- theirs, in fact -- was unfamiliar with Indian cuisine, but had been "reading up." On another occasion we were told the kitchen was backed up with "take out orders" and we would have to wait to be seated at one of the half dozen, or so, empty tables. Huh?
Thankfully the sensuous pleasures of the dishes overcome the service issues.
On Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, Engineer offers complimentary henna hand painting. The hostess, who is also a licensed cosmetologist, does henna hand and foot painting for Indian weddings and during these evenings she visits tables, offering to paint both women and men. "Men," she said, "Use henna in the Punjab." But I didn't see any men taking her up on her offer. People asked me where I had my hand "tattooed" for the first 10 days after the application, and thus has become a subtle yet brilliant way to advertise.
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