Most local Indian restaurants have menus that are practically curry copies. From starters like potato-stuffed samosa pastries to gulab jamun, the syrup-soaked cheese fritter dessert, I’d estimate 80 percent of the dishes are in 95 percent of them. That drives me mad as an Englishman in the midday sun.
India’s blend of geography and cultures has produced a kaleidoscopically diverse national menu with at least 30 recognized regional cuisines. Area diners get the usual suspects. For a passionate fan of Indian cuisine, it’s like signing up for graduate studies in Shakespeare and getting the CliffsNotes to “Hamlet.”
That’s why Tandoori’s menu gave me a thrill. It’s voluminous – not only the most diverse locally, but literally a book. Its 12 pages include many dishes I haven’t seen elsewhere in the area.
Tandoori’s is an elder statesman of Buffalo’s Indian restaurants, rivaled only by Taste of India for longevity.
Founded in 1991 on Delaware Avenue, where Snooty Fox is today, it moved to Transit Road in 1999. In a recent dinner, Tandoori’s reminded me how vast India is. Our meal included some humdrum dishes but more fine ones, whose transporting flavors made me wish I could return for extended studies.
The flip side is that the Indian-agnostic at your table will mutter about opting for the buffet so they don’t have to wade through all the choices. Our party sent the server away twice while we debated and collected our thoughts.
As an assortment of fried appetizers hit the table, we fell silent. The fryer jockey was on his game tonight. Bite-sized shrimp in chickpea batter ($7) were compulsively poppable. The crispy thread chicken ($6.50), named for the vermicelli threads used in its crunchy coating, were exotic chicken nuggets that were somehow not dried out even though they were chicken breast chunks.
An Afghani platter assortment ($11) included more chicken bites, flavorful vegetable fritters and two outstanding meat snacks. Gosht samosa were flaky-crusted fried turnovers stuffed with beef, lamb and peas, and pasli ke panje were tandoor-roasted chicken wings whose marination drove flavor right down to the bone.
Adrak ke chaap ($26, pictured in header) was a pile of two-bite lamb chops in an exotic gravy that used the astringent power of fresh ginger root to hush the muskiness of mutton. It’s my new favorite way to eat a rack of lamb. (Microwaving leftovers brought both dogs to drill me with fumble-wishing stares.)
The sleeper hit was murg kali mirch ($15.50), “a special white chicken preparation with onion and ground pepper.” Chunks of tender chicken were served up in gravy the color of old ivory, speckled black pepper. The savory sauce was both comfortingly familiar and exotic, like a high school buddy who had just come back from the Peace Corps. Even though there was something Velveeta-ish about it, the secret was cashew cream.
Chicken in red Goan curry ($22) was another unusual option that was intriguingly different. The coconut-based gravy reminded me of Thai curry, with chile and coriander rounded out with tomato. Tawa nazkat, okra, potatoes eggplant and onions on a sizzling platter, lifted humble vegetables with spices and a wisp of smokiness from the hot iron.
Two chicken standards arrived sputtering on their own platters, scattered amid onions, bell peppers and tomatoes. Seekh kabab ($17), minced chicken with spices tandoori-fired in sausage-like rolls, and murg tikka ($15), boneless chicken chunks, were both satisfying, amply seasoned and plenty moist.
Other dishes disappointed. Biryani samunda ($15.50), a rice casserole with shrimp, did the spice-scented basmati rice enriched with caramelized onions well, but the shrimp verged on undercooked, and the floppy crustaceans were pushed aside. Baingan bartha ($10), gingery eggplant puree with peas, lacked smoky flavor.
Crab masala ($38), with split king crab legs, was supposed to have spicy coconut sauce. It was a tomato sauce, tasty enough, but the crab had not weathered the freezer well, emerging stringy and dispirited.
Breads – an onion flatbread called kulcha ($4.50) and a puffy deep-fried wheat bread called puri ($4) – were competent.
Tandoori’s mango lassi ($4) was outstanding, with sweetness that faded into yogurt sourness and resonant mango flavor. Sadly, the mango was silent in the mango ice cream ($4). Gulab jamun ($4) was an excellent version of this syrup-soaked golf-ball sized fritter, tender but firm, each accented with a dab of silver foil.
I took a flyer on a dessert unknown to me, listed as Punjabi kulaf ($5), made of thickened milk. A green spreading blob arrived on a plate, reminding me of the classic book from noted epicurean Dr. Seuss, “Bartholomew and the Oobleck.” But you know what? It was delicious, milk sweetened and reduced until it was the consistency of cool molasses, with cardamom and almond flavor.
Service was attentive except for a 20-minute watering gap after our entrees arrived. It was solved when one of the managers monitoring the dining room asked if we needed anything. As always, the meal concluded with a long-stemmed rose for women, and a little pot of shredded coconut and whole spices like fennel and anise. Chew a spoonful as a digestif and it tastes just like Good & Plenty licorice candy.
If I’m looking for standards on a budget, I’d choose New Star of India, Taste of India or Taj Grill. If in the mood for a snazzy night out with the possibility of edible adventure – and a long-stemmed rose – I’d consider Tandoori’s.
Tandoori’s - 8 plates (out of 10)
Veteran Indian restaurant’s vast menu offers a fine chance at adventure.
WHERE: 7740 Transit Road, Amherst (632-1112)
HOURS: 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5 to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; until 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
PRICE RANGE: Appetizers, $4-$11; bread and rice, $2.75-$13.50; entrees, $10.50-$38.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes.