Indian Food Comes Down The Pike

DINING OUT

June 20, 1993|By ELIZABETH LARGE

Tandoor Palace, 6424 Baltimore National Pike, (410) 744-2777 Open every day for lunch and dinner. Major credit cards. No-smoking area: yes. Wheelchair accessible: no. Prices: appetizers, $2.95-$5.25; entrees, $7.50-$14.95.

Not every meal at the Tandoor Palace, I'm sure, will start with Indian fortunetellers wandering in off the street. But they added a certain atmosphere to our evening, even though they wanted to tell the manager's fortune, not ours.

The babuji, as they're known, hook you by pressing a piece of paper in your hand and asking you to name something (a number, a month of the year). You open the paper and -- presto -- what you named is written there. Then they ask for money before they go any further. This started one of my dinner companions reminiscing about when he was living in India and two babujis came up to him on the street. He was told the paper would contain the name of his mother-in-law, and sure enough it did. (The fact that her name was Smith makes the story a little less amazing than it might be otherwise.)

The Tandoor Palace could use more of this sort of atmosphere. The setting counts for something, no matter how good the chef is. (And this one is very good; he's from Jaipur and has supposedly cooked in "five star" hotels all over India.) Alas, the space -- which was last the Hunan Taste -- must once have been a Rustler or something like it.

There's the characteristic frontier front porch (painted purple for some unimaginable reason). The dining room has red leatherette seating, lots of wood and a wagon wheel chandelier above the buffet table. Except for some prints of the blue god Krishna surrounded by milk maidens, there's not a lot to proclaim that this is an Indian restaurant -- until the food arrives on the table.

But once it does, you won't be concerned with your surroundings. You'll be too busy enjoying the imaginative cuisine, mostly from western and northern India. It's aromatic and full of complex flavorings, but not tremendously spicy. Often, for instance, Indian restaurants give you lemon pickle so hot it makes your hair stand on end. At the Tandoor Palace you get cauliflower pickle with loads of vinegary bite but little fire. And a specialty of the chef is shan-e-murgh muglai, a whole boneless chicken breast stuffed with dried fruit and nuts, with a rich reduced cream sauce that has only a mild undercurrent of spices.

Good as it is, another specialty is even better: two deliciously tender lamb chops marinated in yogurt and seasonings, then grilled in the tandoor oven. The lamb is pink and juicy -- not overcooked (at least for American tastes) as tandoori meats sometimes are. It's a knockout.

While there's plenty that's tried and true on this menu, you'll also find dishes that aren't available at other Indian restaurants in the area. And old favorites can have a new twist -- like the raita. You usually find it made with cucumbers and yogurt, but at the Tandoor Palace the ingredients are yogurt, potatoes and corn.

If you want to try something a little different from the usual curries, Tandoor Palace has malai kofta, a large, soft vegetable dumpling in a lightly curried cream sauce that's pure comfort food. For a side dish, I recommend dal makhani, a colorful and flavorful combination of black lentils and red kidney beans slow-cooked in butter.

The appetizer papdi chaat will be completely new to most people. If you can imagine combining something like crisp little oyster crackers, potatoes and cucumbers in yogurt drizzled with a bit of slightly sweet tamarind sauce -- dreadful as that sounds -- you'll have some idea. Give it a try; it's surprisingly good.

Our other starters were a couple of standards -- vegetable samosas and mulligatawny soup -- and the one disappointment of the evening, an uninteresting salad of cucumber, tomatoes and green pepper. The samosas were as good as I've had anywhere, with crisp, grease-free pastry and a savory filling of potatoes and peas. The soup, too, was unusually good: the spiciest dish we had, but not too spicy to overwhelm the other flavors of lentils and chicken.

Be sure to order one of the tandoori breads, baked while you wait so it's very fresh. The naan had a hot, chewy moistness, and the onion kulcha -- much the same bread but with onions and spices -- was a standout.

The Tandoor Palace has the usual very sweet Indian desserts that are a little off-putting to some Westerners -- like rasmalai, homemade cheese patties in sweetened milk served with pistachios. You might be happier (I usually am) ending with spicy Indian tea, made with cardamom and cinnamon. The Tandoor Palace didn't have a liquor license as of our visit, but there's quite a selection of nonalcoholic drinks, including fresh juice "made on the premises" and a "mango tango" based on mango juice.

Next: Scotto's

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