Valentine’s Day, at our house, means something a little different than it does for the rest of the country. Sure, my husband gets me flowers, and now that we have a kid we do spend time making cards and getting ready for the inevitable classroom Valentine party (which includes watching Be My Valentine, Charlie Brown, to reinforce why you make cards for everybody, even the weird kid who takes your pencils), but the real importance of the day is something a little different:
It’s my husband’s birthday.
As you can imagine, that poses some logistical challenges if we want to celebrate in any way that doesn’t involve eating cake at our kitchen table. In our younger days, back before every restaurant had a website, we more than once found ourselves wandering around the Old Port trying to find some place for dinner that wasn’t all wine and roses, with a hundred-dollar prix fixe menu.
I think of Tandoor as a Portland institution. They’ve been in the same spot for 17 years, through many changes in Portand’s food culture, and all that time they’ve been serving up solid, comforting, tasty Indian food. I learned to love Europeanized Indian cuisine while I was living in England, and although Haggerty’s seems to have a corner on the “Brit-Indian” marketing in Portland, Tandoor is the place that reminds me most of the tiny, family owned restaurants that I frequented there.
I have a particular weakness for the breads they make and serve. (Which makes sense, for a restaurant named after a bread-baking oven.) Their Naan is spectacular: soft and hot and light as air. Do try the Garlic Naan and also the Aloo Nan (stuffed with potatoes & peas). We always end up ordering extra bread when our meal is served because our first order gets devoured the moment it hits the table. Breads come with some assorted chutneys (known to us simply as Green, Red, and Brown – they’re not listed on the menu and I’ve honestly never asked what they are) which are fresh and flavorful.
Their appetizers also deserve a special mention. If it’s your first visit, try the Tandoor Sampler, which offers you a good overview – one samosa, one aloo tikki (a fried potato patty), one onion bhaji (a fritter), one of their superb, crispy papadam, and – my favorite – one paneer pakora, a delightful homemade curd cheese, deep fried. One bite of this unassuming little treat and you’ll never be happy with fried mozzarella again.
For a birthday dinner, we will most often order the house special briyani, with it’s light, fluffy saffron rice and assorted proteins (lamb, chicken, shrimp). I have had some terrible briyani in my life, briyani that is a goopy mess, where you cannot make out the individual flavors or textures of anything, not even the rice. At Tandoor, one of the things I like best about the briyani is that the flavors are complex, but discrete. The spices blend well, but within the flavor blend you are able to distinguish the individual notes of the garlic, the ginger, the cardamom, the cinnamon.
Another of our menu favorites is the Keema mutter. If you’ve not had it before, keema mutter is a dish comprised mainly of ground lamb and peas, flavored with coriander and ginger. I particularly love the keema mutter as a winter dish. The ginger is flavorful and aromatic, but doesn’t overpower the dish, and it warms you through and through. The peas somehow manage to maintain their physical integrity, giving them a nice bite and a good counterpoint to the soft ground lamb.
There is a lot that I love about Tandoor. One of the things that makes it a great special occasion (or even ‘date’ restaurant) is the warmth of it’s interior. The bright walls, tiny booths, and intimacy of the space make it a perfect place for a couple to share a meal, especially the kind of meal where you try a bit of my meal and I try a bit of yours. They do serve wine and beer, but their hot Marsala tea is really the perfect complement to any midwinter meal.
Tandoor is not perfect. It is not high-end, not a gourmet restaurant. In a lot of ways, it’s something better than that – its a warm, friendly, cozy place perfect for meeting friends or having a bite before a show or to celebrate your sweetie’s birthday. It’s a place we return to again and again.
Tandoor is located at 88 Exchange St in Portland. They serve lunch Monday – Saturday 11 am to 3 pm, and dinner Monday – Thursday 4:30 – 9: 30 pm, Friday – Sunday 4:30 – 10:30 pm. You can visit their website to preview their menu. You can also Like them on their new Facebook page.
Still can’t find them? Here’s a map.
This post is part of the Portland bloggers February Blog-o-Rama. To read all today’s blog-o-rama posts, read the wrap-up over at Portland Food Map.