"Don't you hate it when they charge you for rice?" I ask my dinner companion after he mentions where he typically procures his Indian food, a well-known staple on the east side of town.
As if on cue, the manager at Tandul, Tremont's first Indian restaurant, walks over and sets down a welcome basket of crispy fried papadum and a pair of chutneys. We inquire about the restaurant's own rice policy and his response sounds as if it could have been ripped from a book of Hindu proverbs.
"We don't want to be penny wise and pound foolish," he says, before disappearing behind a Bodhi tree (or, perhaps, into the kitchen). Not only is the papadum on the house, as is that pea green, tongue-tingling cilantro chutney, a tamarind variety and the heat-taming yogurt raita, but also the rice that accompanies most entrees. What's more, when I dug into my bag of leftovers the following day, I discovered an additional container of basmati rice tossed in for good measure.
When it comes to the neighborhood ethnic restaurant, be it Indian, Thai, Mexican or Chinese, what diners are looking for is value, flavor and service. We can quibble about the order of those elements, but if you deliver a tasty product at a reasonable price in a comfortable setting, the battle is more than half won. Authenticity, either real or perceived, is a bonus. Applying that scorecard, newly opened Tandul already is earning high marks, winning over the hearts, minds and wallets of its culinarily adventurous neighbors.
If Tandul feels like the cozy corner tavern that just so happens to serve Indian food, that's because it is. The cheery storefront space, most recently home to a quick succession of Turkish restaurants, is small, colorful and comfortable. All told, the restaurant seats just 50 guests in two small dining rooms and at the handsome bar, a vestige from when the space belonged to the Hotz Valley View Cafe.
In terms of size, Tandul's menu is one of the most extensive collections of Indian dishes around, with nearly 100 items splashed across about a dozen categories. It's a broad brush that sticks neither to the north or south of the subcontinent as evidenced by the sheer variety of meats, sauces and breads on display. In fact, the menu is so long, it's unwieldy, likely causing more apprehension than elation in the typical diner.
Starters, which weigh in at some 30 items, range from a veg-friendly lentil soup ($4.99) to egg Vepudu ($7.99), an out-of-the-ordinary curry starring hard-cooked eggs. Crispy-fried Chicken 65 ($9.99), a more typical dish, is like the Indian version of spicy Buffalo chicken, but without the bones, celery or blue cheese. It's on the dry side, but the chutneys help. There also are vegetarian versions made with cauliflower or paneer, a simple cheese.
Over the course of two visits we barely made a dent in the menu, but we did make a point of mixing classics like chicken tikka masala ($13.99) with new-to-us options like Tandul Murgh ($16.99), a savory dish of chicken cooked with yogurt, coconut and nuts. With tender knobs of chicken swimming in a mild and creamy tomato-tinted sauce, the chicken tikka masala won't let down fans of that Indian restaurant staple.
Tandul has the largest selection of goat-based dishes in the region, which is great news to those of us who already love the meat. Cooked right, as in the spicy goat Vindaloo ($15.99), goat meat is tender, slightly wild tasting, and not at all musky.
The word tandul is Sanskrit for rice, and it's an element the restaurant takes seriously as shown by its biryanis. Served in decorative copper urns, the fluffy, fragrant dishes feel celebratory, a sharable dish that belongs on every table. There are versions built around paneer, chicken, shrimp and goat ($11 to $16). Tandul's naan ($2.99) is no slouch either, all charred, chewy and glistening with garlic and melted butter. A half dozen naans join other breads like kulcha, roti and paratha.
By now service is settling into an acceptable rhythm, but we did spot an odd us-versus-them attitude between the front of the house and the chefs. When the wrong item landed at our table, the server blamed the cooks instead of simply righting the wrong. But right it he did.
Tandul is becoming a popular new takeout option for denizens of Tremont. It's easy to spot those solitary customers seated at the bar, enjoying a craft beer and waiting for their order to come together. Unlike the Turkish restaurants that preceded it, Tandul deals in a familiar product line, and that can be the difference between success and failure.