We chose Tamarind Indian Cuisine on Carmel Rd.
In a word, it was perfect. The folks at Tamarind were exquisitely courteous, the food was delicious.
We were to meet the other family at 6:00, but we were done with the closing a lot sooner than thought, so we arrived at 5:24. We hadn't made reservations: this might have been a problem on the weekend, we were told, but would be no problem last night. So we stood in the foyer a few minutes while they arranged some tables to sit ten, and then we were seated.
We had a slightly rocky start with the hostess, who was new to Tamarind (and, apparently, Indian food). I asked how the dishes were served, were they mainly rice with a small amount of "main course"? She took that as an insult, but I meant it honestly. My experience with Indians is that they use rice as the bulk of their diet, with the "main courses" almost as condiments. The advantage, of course, is it makes it easier to share meals between people at the table. She seemed mollified by my explanation, and that was the only less-than-stellar part of the night.
Ames and I were seated at least 15 minutes before the others arrived: we were looking over the menu and chatting with the server. I wanted something to sip, and asked about their herbal teas. He assured me the teas were excellent, so Ames and I each ordered one. We asked Shakti, our waiter, to bring us his favourite: he replied he'd bring his two best, so we could try a selection. Ames got one made with lemongrass, I got one whose name I didn't catch. They were astonishing.
With the tea, we ordered a Tamarind's Sampler Platter from the appetizer menu. Shakti assured us it was an excellent choice, and suggested we might also want to try an order of lasooni gobi once the others arrived.
As our friends were driving over to meet us at the restaurant, they called and mentioned they'd never eaten Indian before. They wanted some food suggestions, so we started looking at a menu. A friend in university once told me the best way to eat ethnic food was to ask the waiter to choose a feast; so once everyone arrived, we asked the waiter to do exactly that.
So we asked Shakti to pick a feast for us. I asked if he could include lamb vindaloo done hot. He made some comment about "American spicy, not Indian spicy." That was all I needed to take up the gauntlet: we ordered it "Indian spicy." But the rest of the menu was his selection. We told him about nut allergies, and he was good to go. We got a few appetizers (including the lasooni gobi he had previously suggested) and five or six entrees. In addition, we ordered a basket of naan (eventually Shakti decided we needed two baskets) and some mango pickle (I love mango pickle).
Now, it's entirely likely this strategy wouldn't work with an inferior waiter, but last night it was brilliant. The appetizers were tantalizing, the entrees complimented each other perfectly.
Our menu consisted of:
- Lasooni Gobi: cauliflower fried in some sweet and pungent sauce, with onions and bell peppers. I never thought cauliflower was actually food until last night: I had always thought it was a feminist revenge on men, perpetrated by housewives and mothers across the globe. This stuff was incredible: it didn't last long at all.
- Tandoori Talapia: fish cooked tandoori style. This was the most mild dish of the night, although it was far from boring. The fish came out sizzling on a hot platter and a bed of onions and bell peppers, with what looked like thin-sliced tomatoes.
- Bademia Lamb Chops: lamb chops coated in some spices and grilled, then brought sizzling on a hot platter and a bed of onions and bell peppers (notice a pattern here?). This was basically Indian rack of lamb: it was a huge hit and didn't last five minutes.
- Lamb Vindaloo ("Desi Hot"): vindaloo is a favourite of mine, I couldn't resist ordering it. I love the sauce it comes in.
- Morthal Kali Daal: a daal made of lentils and some other beans. Daal is one of the kids' favourite foods: it was extravagant... delicious!
- Rogan Josh: lamb in a spicy brown sauce. This might have been my favourite of the night.
- Hyderbadi Dum Biryani: a rice dish, with meat in it. One of Ames' friends is from Hyderbad, so we ate this one with some real curiosity. It contained, to our surprise, pieces of chicken and a whole boiled egg. Very tasty, although the egg made serving it somewhat tricky.
- Vegetable Jalfrezi: this was a vegetarian dish with a white cheese sauce. I ate little or none of it, mainly because it was at the other end of the table. I'll try it next time.
- Tamarind's Murgh: a house speciality. Chicken breasts in apricot and spinach sauce. This was actually served as an American-style entree, with rice and vegetables on a single plate. Everything else was served family-style.
The first thing I noticed about the food at Tamarind was that it tasted like home-made food I've had from Indian friends and acquaintances. This was not the standard Americanized fare that's been sitting on a buffet: it was fresh, spicy, and complex. One nice touch was, the family-style dishes were served on small candle warmers, so the food was always hot. The pickle was pungent, the sauces were rich and spicy, the food was altogether excellent.
It was very cool to be there with a family who'd never tried Indian before. It was as enjoyable to watch them cautiously taste something and start smiling, as it was to taste the food myself. And before you ask, I'm no expert in Indian food: I've just had enough experience to want more.
The owner stopped by our table twice, once to check on us as the food was arriving, once when we were finished. He explained that he was aiming at a higher-end dining experience: he had already opened a couple Indian restaurants in Charlotte (which are doing well), but they were the more typical buffets. He's trying to get a place for people who are willing to pay more for food that's better.
All in all, I enjoyed our excursion to the Tamarind even more than I've enjoyed the last few visits to (expensive) steak places. Don't get me wrong: Tamarind is not cheap. But the experience was worth every penny. We won't be eating here very often---we've been spending far too much money on dining out and have chosen to cut back---but it will certainly be a place we visit every other month or so.