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At Tandoori Hut, hits for vegetarians and carnivores alike

My kids have wondered if there's a curse on 3171 Main St. The University Heights space caught their fancy when it was Eddie's Chophouse, Buffalo's only Chinese barbecue specialist, with red-lacquered pork hanging in a glass case ready for the chopping.

Eddie's caught fire and closed. Then came Sandwich Envy, purveyor of eye-popping Iowa-style pork tenderloin sandwiches twice as wide as the bun. When we went back for seconds, it was closed.

When we climbed the steps to Tandoori Hut, the Indian restaurant that opened there in December, one asked, only half-jokingly, "Are you going to break our hearts again?" I wanted to reassure them, but refrained. My kids roll up misstatements and bonk me over the head with them, for fun.

"We'll see," I said. "Life is filled with uncertainty." As it turns out, Tandoori Hut's cuisine invites return visits. Whether the space escapes its reputation as a vale of sorrow remains beyond my powers.

Sharan Brar, wife of owner Baljinder Brar, serves tandoori chicken with saag paneer, chicken makhani and vegetable biryani at Tandoori Hut. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

The surroundings were plain but clean, with tables and booths. The room was noticeably humid when the steam tables lining two sides of the room were in operation, and a television sometimes blares.

Like many Indian restaurants, you can decide on an all-you-can-eat buffet approach, or order dishes individually. Lunch buffets ($10.99, Tuesday through Sunday) and a more extensive Thursday dinner buffet ($14.99) are decent spreads.

Chana masala, curried chickpeas, were firm in a tangy tomato sauce. Spiced potato patties were dull but filling. Fritters of spinach and onion dipped in chickpea batter and fried were still crispy after waiting in the table. Paneer makhani, peas and cheese cubes in creamy gravy, orange from tomato, was straight-up comfort food, ladled out over piles of fluffy, fragrant basmati rice.

Saag paneer at Tandoori Hut. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Tandoori chicken, marinated in spiced yogurt before being roasted in an intense oven, was moist and mild. Butter chicken, chunks of chicken breast in a sweet tomato cream, was placidly agreeable.

The dishes may change, but they're always accompanied by freshly made cilantro-speckled naan flatbread glistening with butter. Raita, white yogurt sauce and coriander-chile chutney, verdant with a nudge of heat, are available for tarting up plates.

Ordering from the menu isn't as good a deal, but it’s the best way to experience the diversity of Indian cuisine. Start with samosas (two for $2.99), pyramid-shaped fried turnovers of lively chile-spiked potato encased in flaky pastry. They’re delivered to table with a trio of condiments: raita yogurt sauce, coriander chutney and chile-marinated onions.

Consider also the samosa chaat ($5.99), which starts with a smashed samosa, then covers it in raita, chutney, fruity sweet-sour tamarind sauce, chickpeas and shredded cilantro, the result not much to look at but going down easy like a vegetarian garbage plate.

Another vegetarian appetizer worth consideration is tikka paneer ($9.99), with matchbox-sized hunks of fresh cheese smeared in a chile-forward spice rub with cilantro and charred in the tandoor oven alongside bell peppers and onions. The heat-seared surface made it crusty, hearty without meat. Paneer emerges in various permutations across the menu, most luxuriously in paneer malai ($11.95), a coconut cream gravy scented with ginger, garlic, turmeric and coriander.

Meat-avoidant eaters might also approve of vegetable biryani ($11.95), which was a heaping mound of basmati rice enriched with butter, cashews and raisins. Cauliflower and peas added texture and vitamins.

Vegetable biryani at Tandoori Hut. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Tandoori fish ($12.99) came out garishly pink, thanks to food coloring, but there was no denying its tastiness. A fish filet had been sliced, marinated in ginger, garlic and spiced, and fried to a soft crunch.

Chicken seekh kabab ($9.99), coarsely ground chicken meatballs on skewers fired in the tandoor oven, came out on an iron sizzle platter in a jumble of onion, bell pepper,and a lime wedge. It was moist enough, but unpleasantly salty.

Meat curries include chicken jalfrezi ($12.95), chopped chicken breast in tomato sauce spiked with lemon, ginger and spices. The meat turned crumbly, making me wonder again why so many Indian restaurants use chicken breast in curries when it seems the cut of chicken least amenable to a long, slow simmer.

Lamb was my favorite move at Tandoori Hut. Lamb vindaloo ($12.95) offered spoon-tender meat in a sour vinegary sauce that served as a trenchant reminder of the sauce’s Portuguese roots. Lamb rogan josh ($12.95) had a silky, deeply flavored gravy with smoky notes from black cardamom, and more tender meat.

Chicken makhani at Tandoori Hut. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Service consisted of an overtasked woman handling both takeout and tables, who often disappeared into the kitchen. The meal assembled at a shambolic pace, with bread arriving after the other dishes were mostly consumed.

But that bread included onion kulcha ($3.25), a gorgeous flatbread made of dough stretched until windows appeared, showing the layer of red onion and scallions tucked inside. Tandoori Hut offers 18 types of bread, and the standard naan was poofy and delectable. Not all turned out as well. Deep-fried puri (two for $2.50), normally served like a puffy wheat balloon, arrived deflated and oily.

When it comes to heat levels, asking for mild was usually enough to avoid discomfort. Medium and more was a choose-you-own-adventure situation, as the kitchen showed it could play with fire.

Tandoori Hut offers flavorful food at a decent price, in a room with minimal creature comforts and scant service. It serves both carnivores and vegetarians ably, and its bread list is worth exploring. Whether it can keep my kids in good spirits remains to be seen, but that's my problem.

DINING OUT

Tandoori Hut – 7 plates (out of 10)

Location: 3171 Main St., 931-9343

Hours: noon to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. Closed Monday.

Prices: appetizers, $2.99-$12.99; bread, $1.95-$3.95; entrees, $10.95-$17.95

Parking: street

Wheelchair accessible: no

Gluten-free options: Ask server

Tandoori Hut on Main Street in University Heights. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Email: agalarneau@buffnews.com

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