Restaurant Review: Tanjore

Fishkill's Tanjore proves that curry can be cool.



Fishkill's Tanjore proves that curry can be cool.

 A delicious dish at Fishkill's Tanjore Photograph by Michael Nelson

During the years I lived in Manhattan, my friends and I regularly made the easy trek to “Little India,” a block on East Sixth Street literally crammed with Indian restaurants. There, we indulged in savory Samosas (vegetable-stuffed pastry shells), crisped pillows of tandoor-baked breads, spicy Channa Masala (chickpeas cooked in tomato, garlic and onion), Aloo Gobi (cumin-spiced potato and cauliflower), tender-sweet jasmine rice — and the curry list went on and on. My friends and I ate and ate until stuffed — but never broke. We swore we wouldn’t go back for months, only to return the very next week. When I moved north, I began my search for the Hudson Valley’s own Little India. Alas, it doesn’t exist (at least not in the same concentrated swath of city streets). A careful, albeit nonscientific, survey turned up at least six Indian restaurants in the region. But a visit to a nondescript strip mall on the southern end of Fishkill’s Main Street told me all I need to know. Good Indian food in the Valley does exist, at a little gem named Tanjore. 

 

Tanjore (the moniker comes from a southeastern Indian city) specializes in southern Indian cuisine. This food is known for its emphasis on rice as the staple grain, its use of chilies, the liberal inclusion of coconut, and its fragrant and bold spices. Southern Indian cooking is also known for a wide variety of vegetarian and seafood dishes. That said, Tanjore, open since May 2005, prides itself on its diversity of foods. The menu includes some specialties from the north of India, where rich sauces, butter-based curries, dairy products, tandoori baked flat breads, and grilled meats rule.

 

Whichever region it comes from, I find good Indian cuisine, with its complex and robust flavors, luscious. Dare I say, it’s exotic, and for me, even addictive. Like most good foods, outstanding Indian fare is based on the freshness of the ingredients and specific cooking techniques used. Indian dishes often rely on the tandoor oven. Essentially a large clay pot, the oven is heated by charcoal, which lines the bottom of the structure. Temperatures approach 900 degrees Fahrenheit, allowing ingredients to develop a very crisp outer layer without sacrificing moistness on the inside.

 

On a recent Saturday night, the restaurant was bustling (as is usual), yet the service remained warm and relaxed. Owner Dinesh Prakasam prides himself on running a friendly establishment. Our waiter never hesitated to offer recommendations or to explain ingredients and techniques used in our dishes. That’s a very big plus when you’re eating food that may be unfamiliar.

 

We kicked off our evening with a basket of pappadam: delicate wafer-like crackers made from lentil flour, salt and cumin seeds. They were very light and crisp with just a hint of heat. Our appetizers included Calamari Madras and Regada. The calamari is coated in chickpea flour and deep-fried, then stir-fried with an onion-based sauce, spicy masala, onions, bell peppers, garlic and cilantro. It was savory, mildly spicy, and delicious. Billed as a “Calcutta favorite,” Regada are spiced potato patties layered with melt-in-your-mouth chickpeas, a chickpea sauce, and topped with tamarind, mint, yogurt, chopped cilantro and chaat masala (a complex mix of house spices). The patties were warm and fragrant with a good amount of bold flavor.

 

Mulligatawny soup is an Indian standard, so I felt the need to see how Tanjore would treat this old favorite. Essentially a purée of yellow lentils, mulligatawny sounds and tastes immensely more appealing than “pepper broth” (which is how the word is translated from the Hindi). Tanjore’s version is deceptively simple, with only lentils, coconut cream and vegetable stock as its main ingredients. Served steaming hot, it was fragrant, lemony, somewhat salty — but very appealing and substantial. Garnished with a lemon slice and curry leaf (which appears frequently in Indian cooking), it was served over pillowy basmati rice.

 

Oven baked flat bread is the cornerstone of the Indian table. Our immense bread basket included a combination of plain nan, garlic nan, and onion kulcha. Nan is flat bread made from wheat and baked to order in the tandoor oven. Our bread was brushed with ghee (clarified butter) and topped with crushed garlic, red onion and scallions covered with cilantro. Hot and fluffy, the amazing bread was enhanced when dipped into a startlingly cool cucumber and yogurt dip called raita.

 

The menu is crammed with a dizzying array of choices. With the help of our waiter we chose three entrées. Tabac Maz — New Zealand lamb chops marinated in white pepper, ginger and mint and grilled to order in the tandoor — arrived at our table sizzling and steaming, much like a Mexican fajita. The six generous pieces of lamb nestled on a bed of onions and green peppers were peppery, fragrant, slightly spicy and perfectly cooked. The meat was tender and juicy, and rose to its peak in flavor when spritzed with fresh lemon.

 

Mogulai Murgh Korma, boneless chicken breast cooked in a creamy cashew and almond sauce, was flavored with saffron, nuts and raisins — a delicious counterpart to the lamb. We also tried one of the chef’s specialties: Milagu Varutha Chettinad Kozhi, served in a black peppercorn sauce. The dish is also (thankfully) known as “deviled chicken.” It got its name from the British, who thought it too fiery and therefore only good for the devil. Interestingly enough, of all the dishes we sampled, this was the only one that truly was hot. In fact, it was really hot, which is fine by me. But it’s important to note that not all Indian food is extremely spicy (although many people use that as an excuse to shy away from this cuisine). While you can certainly find many heavily spiced foods on the menu, you will find as many, if not more, mild items. All dishes can also be ordered to taste. My deviled chicken was loaded with cubed chicken in a thick tasty sauce made with coconut, star anise, mustard seeds, onion, cilantro and of course, an ample amount of chilies.

 

The fact that we were stuffed was no impediment to ordering — and enjoying — dessert. We settled on Rasa Malai, the longtime Indian favorite. It is basically a delicate, ricotta-like cheese which is dunked in a sweet, custardy, cream-based sauce mildly flavored with saffron and cardamom, then sprinkled with pistachios and served in a martini glass. Though no fruit was added, we tasted hints of peach or mango that I suspect was due to cooking down the cream (called double cream), resulting in a sweeter, nuttier dairy product that is useful in many dishes. It was delicious.

 

Tanjore is modest in appearance and character, as well as very reasonably priced. But don’t let that fool you. If you could ascribe food an attitude, Tanjore’s offerings would definitely have a major dose of it. Their Indian cuisine bursts with exquisite, bold flavors in dish after dish after dish. Who needs a whole block of Indian restaurants when just one will do?

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