Updated  
May, 25 2014 17:59:31

Tandoor serves up pleasant surprises

From the heart: The food at Tandoor, an Indian eatery in Ha Noi's Old Quarter, is uniformly good and often inspired. — VNS Photos Viet Thanh

by Hari Chathrattil

There is nothing diminutive about short-statured Mannan Khan.

His rotund middle is matched by an expansive smile that he bestows generously on both customers as well as passers-by, if he happens to be standing outside his workplace. But it is when people praise his food that Khan's bigness comes into its own. His smile disappears and round eyes widen in the effort to heighten earnestness as he delivers his favoured punch line: "Hum dil se kaam lete hain" - "We work from the heart."

If you have caught Khan saying this in the presence of Abdul and Nazrul Khan, fellow chefs at the Tandoor restaurant in Ha Noi, you will see them nod in solemn agreement.

Restaurant regulars like yours truly can tell you this is not an infrequent scene at Tandoor. While the food is uniformly good, there are times aplenty when it is inspired and patrons want to complement the chef in person. There is no gainsaying that this is a good move if you are a regular and an uncompromising critic to boot, because compliments (and criticism) carry greater value and motivation.

As a long-term Viet Nam expat, I have introduced Indian food via Tandoor to legions of Vietnamese colleagues and friends, not to mention other expats, and have rarely been disappointed with the fare or the reactions it evokes in first-timers. However, I have always done this with tried and tested dishes, those that almost everyone tends to order - samosas and chicken tikkas for starters, chicken masala, the milder lamb curry, rogenjosh, panneer butter masala (Indian cottage cheese chunks in a thick tomato gravy), garlic and butter naan, and so on.

Last Thursday, I decided to do something different. I would keep the meal almost totally vegetarian and order somewhat unusual starters, curries and breads. I was fairly confident that Mannan Khan and Co. would do justice, but was curious to see how the Vietnamese greenhorns - two women and two men - would respond.

Good for herbivores: The restaurant offers a wide selection of vegetarian curries as well as meat dishes.

Thankfully, the meal turned out to be a series of surprises - all of the pleasant variety.

The first surprise was Kingfisher - an Indian beer. My friends had no idea that a beer imported from India was available in Ha Noi. The second surprise was that it tasted "pretty good". Exclusively sold in Viet Nam by Tandoor in Ha Noi and HCM City, Kingfisher turned out to be a good accompaniment to the starters that followed, which means, of course, that a reversal of the starter-accompaniment roles worked well too.

Deliberately, in order to make an impression, I had requested the restaurant's manager to have the food served all at once. The move worked. The smorgasbord of snacks, breads and curries was a veritable feast for the eyes, and it set all the tongues at the table wagging in exclamatory mode.

With such visually appetizing fare, some of the rules were broken immediately. I received polite but perfunctory nods as I pointed to the dishes, explaining that these three are starters, these are the curries, and these are the breads, that this is usually had with that…. The guests were already experimenting with combinations that struck their fancy.

But let us start with the starters - chilli-potato bajji, gobi Manchurian and some roast pappadams.

Long green chillies stuffed with spiced mashed potatoes dipped in a lentil flour batter and deep fried, the bajjis had the perfect shade of yellow - meaning they were not overdone and would be crispy on the outside and soft and crunchy on the inside.

Bread basket: The bread selection includes pudina paratha (whole wheat flatbread garnished with fresh mint leaves)as well as butter and garlic naan and simple chapatti (unleavened whole wheat flatbread).

Tandoor

Address: 24 Hang Be

Tel.: 04 3824 5359

Price range: VND100,000-200,000

Comment: Uniformly good, often inspired Indian cuisine

Dishes to try: Chilli potato bajji, dum panneer kali mirch, dahl bhindi

Relieved that they were not as spicy as they sounded, the bajjis, dipped into a mint-coriander chutney, received due nods of approval.

The Gobi Manchurian raised quizzical eyebrows. Indian-Chinese? The cauliflower florets had a thin veneer of corn flour and maida (white flour) that made them slightly crispy and the flavours of the onions, garlic and soy sauce combined well to turn curiosity into happy smiles.

Personally, I felt it was not crispy enough, that it needed some green capsicum as well as the flavour of green chilli sauce, but this dish seems to have a great deal of variations, depending on the restaurant and its chefs.

One Vietnamese friend found the pappadams a bit too salty and spicy, but all of us agreed that they went perfectly with the Kingfisher.

For the main course, I had ordered three exotic sounding curries, exotic even to those foreigners somewhat familiar with Indian food: Dum Panneer Kali Mirch, Phool Gobi Sambaari, and Dahi Bhindi. As a sort of back option there was the more familiar dal palak, the mildly-spiced yellow lentils curry with spinach, seasoned with cumin seeds.

The Dum Panneer Kali Mirch, chunks of homemade Indian cottage cheese cooked in a fragrant fried onion paste (fragrance courtesy cardamom, cloves and cinnamon) spiced up with coriander and cumin powders, garlic-ginger-chillies paste and coarsely ground black pepper and thickened with yoghurt and cream, had one panneer conversant American guest saying: "This is the best panneer dish by far." It is one of the best, indeed, but I am not sure how the "dum" part of cooking this dish can be managed in a restaurant serving up so many dishes every minute.

Dum involves sealing up the "handi", the thick-bottomed vessel in which the dish is cooked on a low flame, so that no steam escapes. This process also applies to "biriyani' the fragrant rice that we also enjoyed a serving of.

The phool gobi sambari, cauliflower and tomatoes cooked in coconut milk was a bit too rich and heavy and not spicy enough for my palate, but my guests were content. They were having a really good time dipping into the different curries the breads with different textures - pudina paratha (wholewheat flat bread garnished with fresh mint leaves - a personal favourite), aloo paratha (wholewheat bread stuffed with spiced potatoes - an enjoyable meal by itself), a butter naan and a garlic naan (flat, leavened breads cooked by sticking them on the sides of the tandoor), and the simple chapatti (an unleavened wholewheat flatbread made every day in North Indian homes).

The other curry, dahi bhindi, was the only one with a somewhat south Indian flavour to it. Okras fried and cooked in a turmeric-flavoured yoghurt gravy seasoned with popped mustard seeds, this one elicited a "this is better" pronouncement from my American guest, who'd tried the same dish elsewhere.

Cups of hot masala chai, strong black tea with cardamom and ginger, milk and sugar to taste, were a perfect ending to a sumptuous meal.

Watching my Vietnamese friends exhort each other to try this combination was ample reward and the chefs beamed when I described the scene to them, but tried to look grave and composed when asked to pose for a photograph.

However, their day was made by a parting compliment from the Vietnamese guests: "We'll be back for more." — VNS

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