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A tandoori oven in an unlikely place

By Frank Sabatini Jr.

Restaurateur and aircraft engineer Mayur Vadhwana brings Indian cuisine to areas where people least expect it.

In the late ’90s he introduced to the citizens of Duluth, Minnesota, that city’s first Indian restaurant, which endures today under different ownership. More recently, he opened Indian Grill on Old Town’s main drag, where nut-stuffed naan bread and vindaloo curry are a first in a neighborhood flocked by tacos and burritos.

Yet from the look of things, nobody’s proclaiming culinary sacrilege.

Shish Kabob entreeweb

Chicken shish kabob plate (Photos by Frank Sabatini Jr.)

The bright, colorful space with its spacious outdoor patio has attracted a steady patronage by locals and tourists since opening a few months ago. A growing number of Brits have also come knocking for curry dishes they’ve grown accustomed to in their homeland, such as yogurt-laced rogan josh and classic tikka masala cooked as such by Indian immigrants across England.

As a result, Vadhwana plans on adding more English-upheld Indian fare to the menu, focusing perhaps on jalfrezi-style dishes in which vegetables and marinated meats are cut into long strips and stir-fried in a riot of spices.

Vadhwana is a native of Gujarati, India, and works by day at his engineering job before warmly greeting dinnertime visitors at the restaurant. His menu is co-authored by New Jersey-based chef Arvind Panchal, who helps open Indian kitchens around the country.

Rogan Josh, basmati rice and lamb curry (Photo by Frank Sabatini Jr.)

Rogan Josh, basmati rice and lamb curry
(Photo by Frank Sabatini Jr.)

Aside from goat appearing as a protein option, the menu features familiar dishes seen at most Indian restaurants around town. The house-made samosas, however, rank among the best. They’re available in veggie or chicken and boast crispy casings with onion seeds embedded into them.

The raita scores high points, too. As a condiment for naan bread or a dipping sauce for meat, this yogurt-cucumber-mint admixture typically takes on overloads of salt. Here, the sodium is eliminated and shredded carrots are added, resulting in a sweet-sour flavor that had us spooning every last speck from the bowl.

A clay tandoori oven imported from India serves as the cooking source for most dishes, including lamb or chicken shish kabobs. We chose the latter, which featured a few necklaces of succulent thigh meat brushed with tamarind, garlic, mint and cilantro. It’s a recipe that Vadhwana proudly calls his own — and certainly a cut above most others.

Heat levels for the curry-based dishes are available in mild, medium or hot rather than a 10-scale number system.

“We don’t use that kind of razzmatazz,” Vadhwana quipped. “It’s too difficult to calibrate all those levels.”

House-made samosas; (below) Chicken shish kabob plate (Photos by Frank Sabatini Jr.)

House-made samosas (Photos by Frank Sabatini Jr.)

For madras curry with lamb that my companion chose, it came mild as requested and was a tad oily. The sauce is among the thickest since it embodies coconut milk and dense measures of turmeric, coriander, cumin and cloves. Though in Indian restaurants that don’t cater as much to American palates, the recipe unleashes a good dose of chili peppers.

I ordered rogan josh with shrimp at medium heat level, which fell slightly below the spiciness I expected. The tomato-yogurt sauce was nonetheless tangy and brightly spiced with turmeric, though without obliterating the flavor of several large shrimp contained within. The sauce was abundant, with plenty leftover to juice up the fluffy long-grain basmati rice served alongside.

tandoriOther categories on the menu featuring a choice of proteins include daal saag (spinach and lentils), korma (creamy sauce with nuts), kadai (onions and bell peppers) and vindaloo (vinegar-based curry sauce). Minced lamb or chicken, known as keema, and what Vadhwana calls “a short-cut version” of spiced biryani rice, are also available along with a dozen vegetarian entrees.

Dishes are made to order, including excellent naan bread topped or stuffed with various ingredients such as meat, onions, nuts or garlic. In other words, the food takes several minutes longer to arrive at your table compared to other Indian restaurants that keep pots of cooked meats simmering all day on the stove. But as we found when savoring the exotic flavors lingering on our tongues between courses, it’s worth the wait.

—Contact Frank Sabatini Jr. at fsabatini@san.rr.com.

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