25 January 2006

Dining review: Tamarind Bay (Cambridge, Massachusetts)

Boston, Cambridge and environs have a lot of Indian restaurants. Probably too many; while few are actively bad, almost none are actually interesting. Some have vague specialties or regions of influence, some have better (or worse) décor, and many rest too comfortably on a constant inflow of student-heavy business. Until recently, the best Indian food in the Boston area was – somewhat inexplicably – in the white bread suburb of Arlington, at Punjab. But while Punjab achieved superiority though better flavors and spicing (and the occasional introduction of a slight digression on tried-and-true dishes), it broke little new ground.

Then Tamarind Bay came along, and changed everything.

Not only is the menu full of exciting new dishes (that is, “new” in the local context; places like London have had this level of cooking for ages), but the cooked-to-order nature of things at Tamarind Bay makes everything several orders of magnitude more vivid and intense. (Obviously, “cooked to order” means something different in an Indian restaurant than, say, a French joint…but the key is flavor bases that aren’t merely repurposed from dish to dish, and an actual attempt to work as to-the-moment as one can given the cuisine.) Plus, there’s even a decent little wine list – try the Sula Chenin Blanc from, of all places, India – and a nice selection of digestifs, which is almost unheard of at Indian restaurants.

Tamarind Bay is probably most adept with tandoori cookery (which also means many of their breads are top-notch), but after working my way through a rather large portion of the menu, my two favorite dishes remain the appetizer-sized chotta bhutta kali mirch (baby corn coated with a zingy black pepper sauce and served with an intensely-infused olive oil) and the transcendant lalla mussa dal (black lentils slow-cooked with spices to an almost unbelievable complexity of flavor and texture).

The downstairs location is a touch claustrophobic, but the space is a notch more elegant than most Indian restaurants (save, perhaps, Kashmir on its better days). This is a restaurant that deserves even more patronage than it already receives.

2 comments:

Marc said...

I've always wanted to go to Tamarind Bay, but have not gotten around to going there yet. By the way, Punjab is moving a few doors down in Arlington Center, into a bigger spot.

Have you tried Punjabi Dhaba in Inman Square? No atmosphere, but incredible food!

Thor Iverson said...

Good for Punjab. I'm happy for their success. When I lived in Arlington, they were a no-time-to-shop lifeline.

Haven't tried Punjabi Dhaba, but it sounds worth a try. Thanks.