Full Of Spice . . . And Quite Nice

DINING OUT

March 28, 1993|By ELIZABETH LARGE

Charles Tandoor, Charles Plaza, 222 N. Charles St., (410) 576-5095. Open every day for lunch and dinner. Major credit cards. No-smoking section: yes. Wheelchair-accessible: yes. Prices: appetizers $1.25-$4.50; entrees $5.75-$11.75.

The Tandoor in Harborplace, part of a Washington-based group, had as good food as any Indian restaurant in the area -- and the best view by far. It did well in the early '80s but then declined in popularity and finally went under late last year, perhaps because of competition from the hot new spots that moved into Harborplace.

Now the manager of Tandoor and several of the employees have opened a new Indian restaurant a few blocks north at Charles Plaza. It doesn't have the great harbor view, but the food is better than I remember at the old location, the dining room is pretty and the service is superb. Of course, since we were the only customers for most of the evening, I would have been surprised if it hadn't been.

And that's going to be the Charles Tandoor's biggest problem. It's in the spot where Mitsu, a nice Japanese restaurant, used to be. Mitsu certainly didn't fail because of its food or atmosphere but because of its location. Out of sight, out of mind.

Maybe Charles Tandoor can do better. It has a draw at lunch time: an all-you-can-eat buffet for $6.95. The selection changes daily, but the day I inquired it included, among other good things, butter chicken, lamb saag, chicken tandoor, curried cabbage and peas, rice pilaf and dal (lentils).

In the evening the long buffet table is disguised with handsome copper pots and draped Indian fabrics. The narrow dining room is quite contemporary, with blond wood furniture and lots of glass. Pink napkins are fanned prettily in each water glass, and each table has a candle and fresh carnations.

Charles Tandoor isn't just for lovers of fire and spice. Only a few dishes are starred as exceptionally hot. But be warned: While you can enjoy the different flavors and aromas of this food rather than just tasting heat, the spiciness builds. By the end of your meal you won't be sorry you didn't choose the starred items.

Charles Tandoor has the standard dishes other Indian restaurants around here do, but it also offers some I've never tried, such as chat-e-bahar. It's an intriguing salad of chickpeas, diced potatoes and bean sprouts tossed with a fresh-tasting yogurt, lemon and cilantro dressing.

Besides the traditional tandoori chicken, the kitchen spreads plump chunks of boneless white meat with cream cheese sparked with green chilies, then grills them in the tandoor oven until they're juicy and slightly charred.

If you'd like to sample a variety of dishes, try either the vegetarian or non-vegetarian thali, both of which come with rice, two little puffed-bread puris and crisp, crackerlike pappadums. The vegetarian version included creamy yellow lentils; ginger-tinged eggplant, onions and tomatoes; potatoes and spinach; and a medley of vegetables, mainly cauliflower, in a red hot chili sauce.

Small, tender chunks of lamb shahi korma had a complex sauce -- spicy but not fiery -- made with yogurt and almonds. The shrimp in jhinga masala were babies, but they were firm and fresh and had a zingy tomato, green pepper and onion sauce.

The side dishes and breads are an important part of an Indian meal -- don't skimp on them. We tried naan, unleavened bread grilled in the tandoor oven, which managed to be both chewy and crisp. And raita is always a must; the cool yogurt and #F cucumber combination soothes the most fire-assaulted palate. You can get old favorites here like samosas, the appetizer pastries stuffed with potatoes and peas or meat. Charles Tandoor's have the right balance of bland starch and spices; you eat them with fiery-sweet tamarind sauce or fiery-tangy coriander sauce. Or try Charles Tandoor's version of dal soup, thin and slightly grainy with an intriguing undertone of lemon and spice.

Our waiter asked if we were going to eat "family style." When we said yes, he placed a second table catty-cornered to ours to serve from. It made for easy, uncrowded sharing of dishes.

We ordered desserts without having much room left for them. Alas, there was no more homemade mango ice cream. The other choices included gulab jamin, an indescribable dessert that involves a ball of milk powder and sugar syrup. In its defense, it was served hot, which made it actually palatable. The same couldn't be said of Indian rice pudding (if you're used to the American version); it was thin, very sweet and milky. Have instead a tart-sweet "milkshake" made of mango and yogurt -- soothing after a spicy-hot meal.

If none of those appeals, get ready for why I nominate Charles Tandoor as Baltimore's trendiest Indian restaurant: You can also end your meal with a cappuccino, and a very nice cappuccino at that.

$ Next: Maison Marconi

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