Tamarind manager James Bhad watches over some of the Oakland restaurant's offerings: Paneer Kadai, which is home-made cheese cooked with vegetables in a creamy sauce, left, and paper dosa, extra-long thin crepes of lentil and rice served with chutney and sambar.
Click photo for larger image.
257 N. Craig St.
Basics: South Indian and tandoori specialties and served in a turn-of-the-century house. Friendly service and great vegan and vegetarian entrees and a great assortment of Indian breads. Private dining and outdoor dining in fine weather.
Prices: Appetizers, $4-$7; entrees, $6.50-$14; desserts, $3; wines, $4.99 for a 5-ounce pour. Indian beer, $3.50.
Summary: No smoking; accessible; major credit cards accepted. Parking in garage next door, $3 after 5 p.m., or on street.
Noise level: Low.
Tamarind, Savoring India, was the first restaurant in our area to specialize in Southern Indian cooking. That restaurant, in Scott, now has a sibling in Oakland. Tamarind, Flavors of India, is housed in a handsome, turn-of-the-century building with high ceilings, walnut paneling, stained glass and marble fireplaces. The furnishings are simple, the napkins are paper and the interior decor is understated, but the welcome is warm and sincere.
Both Tamarind restaurants are the creation of Prasad Potluri, a native of Hyderabad in Southern India who came to the United States 14 years ago as a university student. A job with Bayer brought him to Pittsburgh. When queried about why someone with a full-time corporate job would open a restaurant, he was quick to reply that it was his love for food and his passion for cooking that sparked the restaurateur flame. He also felt Pittsburgh should have greater exposure to Southern Indian cuisine.
The menu at the Oakland Tamarind is a reduced version of the Scott menu. Gone are some of the more unusual southern specialties such as medhu vada and dhai vada (fried lentil doughnuts) and some of the more uncommon rice preparations. Another distinction is a perceptible reduction in the amount of hot chili going into the food. Oakland's Tamarind will not expose diners to the normal "heat" of Southern Indian food unless the customer requests it. It seems that even natives who hail from the region of the sub-continent lose their desire for heavy doses of chilis after living for a spell in the United States. To appeal to a wider audience, Tamarind, Flavors of India, is serving food for an American palate.
On the appetizer menu, I suggest that you skip the samosas and go straight for the Mirchi Jaji ($3.99). These banana peppers are stuffed with a spicy chutney and are deep fried. Crunchy and with a bit of fire, the peppers could become an addiction. Chicken 65 ($5.99) is described on the menu as a popular Indian bar room snack. The small marinated pieces of chicken are deep fried and resemble Colonel Sanders' popcorn fried chicken with a dose of hot spice. I found them dry, overly salty and unappealing.
If you have never had a dosa, now is your chance. Dosas are thin crepes made of lentils and rice. The batter ferments overnight and is then cooked on a griddle like a pancake. When crisp, it is folded and served with chutney and sambar (a soup made from lentils). Dosas are typically eaten as a breakfast food in India and come with a variety of coatings or stuffings. They are all vegan-friendly. Madras Masala Dosa ($7.50) is stuffed with potato and onions. Another version of the rice and lentil pancake is Uthappam ($6.50). For this dish, the batter made of lentils makes a thick pancake. Tomatoes, peas, onions and chilis are cooked in the batter, making Uthappam resemble a pizza. It, too, is served with sambar.
Other Tamarind specialties that I have not seen elsewhere are Poori Bajji and Channa Batura. Poori Bajji ($6.99) is a puffy round of whole wheat bread that has been deep fried and is served with chick pea curry or potato masala. Potato masala is a combination of mashed potatoes, dhal and sauteed onions seasoned with ginger and a healthy helping of various spices that often accompany dosas and chapati (a sort of Asian tortilla made from whole wheat flour). Channa Batura ($7.99) is again deep-fried bread similar to poori and served with chick peas in curry gravy. I didn't ask about trans-fat in the frying oil here because these fried breads are so delicious I preferred not to know if they were filled with the latest no-go ingredient.
Speaking of breads, one of the best arguments I know for dining in Indian restaurants is the variety of wonderful breads they offer. Whether made from white or whole-wheat flour, breads cooked in the clay tandoor oven all have a special quality and chewy texture unlike any European-style breads.
Tamarind is the perfect vegetarian destination. In addition to the long list of dosas, there are 10 vegetarian entrees, many of them vegan. Palak Paneer ($10.99) combines creamy spinach with home-made cottage cheese. Gobi Manchurian ($10.99) is battered cauliflower that is fried and served in a spicy tomato sauce. Navaratna Kurma ($10.99) combines fresh vegetables with fruits and ground nuts and a creamy kurma sauce made with coconut milk.
Back to the tandoor oven, it should be noted that it also does a great job cooking meats. The mixed grill ($13.99) is a nice way to sample a variety of meats (no beef) cooked in the clay oven. There is lamb, shrimp and chicken in two styles. The first is tandoori chicken, a large piece of chicken marinated in yogurt and a number of spices including bright orange tumeric, which imparts both flavor and color to the succulent, moist roasted chicken. The other preparation is chicken tikka, small chunks of chicken breast that have also been marinated in yogurt and spices and cooked on a skewer.
Biryani ($10.99) could be considered the most typical regional dish of Southern Indian. Basmati rice is cooked with lamb or chicken and seasoned with cardamom and coriander to produce an aromatic plate that sums up the culinary preferences of the area. Other typical dishes from the region are Chettinadu ($11.99) and Pepper Fry. Both are served with rice and dhal or fresh vegetables. Chettinadu is boneless chicken or lamb cooked in a spicy curry sauce made with coconut milk. For Pepper Fry, the cubes of meat are sauteed in a dry mixture of curry leaves and hot spices.
On the beverage list is an Indian specialty that never fails to please: lassi. Lassi is a fermented dairy product that has the consistency of milk and the taste of yogurt. It can be served either sweet, with the addition of sugar, or salty. Mango lassi is sweet, with mango pulp. If lassi is not for you, there are other fruit juices and Indian beers.
Kulfi ($2.99) is a delicious house-made ice cream flavored with either ground almonds or ground pistachio nuts. It is made with sweetened condensed milk, which gives it a slightly chewy texture and takes it out of the realm of ordinary ice creams.
A great way to sample the Tamarind fare is to go for the lunch, which is served daily. Lunch is $6.99 and includes one appetizer, curries and a rice pudding-style dessert. The items change constantly, but Tamarind has agreed that on Wednesdays it will always serve igli (special rice cakes not usually on the menu) as the appetizer and lemon rice, a special treat.
Wines are available, but the selection is limited. If you prefer wine with your Indian food, I suggest that you take a bottle and pay the $10 corkage fee.
Elizabeth Downer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1454.