Much has changed for the better since Sizzling Tandoor in Santa Rosa was bought by Vinay Patel about three years ago.
What used to be an uninspired Indian restaurant now offers an adventuresome menu, including (on Mondays through Thursdays) southern Indian dishes seldom seen in these parts.
In southern India, the dosa is as ubiquitous as the crepe is in France — and in fact, dosa means crepe, but these are made with rice flour and split lentils instead of wheat flour. In India, dosas are traditionally a breakfast dish, but are also eaten at other times. There are dozens of variations, and Sizzling Tandoor puts five of them on its menu.
India is the land of hot as well as aromatic spices. The restaurant will ask you how you want your dishes spiced — mild, medium or spicy? Mild is a gentle but insistent heat. Medium is what we usually think of as spicy. And spicy means that you’ll break a sweat and be reaching for the raita — the palate-cooling yogurt dip made with cilantro, cumin, mint and sometimes cucumber. Do order the Cucumber Raita ($3.95 ) if you’re going to order anything with a spiciness level above mild. You’ll need it.
One of the most welcome innovations is the lineup of Indian spice blends called masalas that you can buy to spice up your own home cooking. Ten blends are put together from spices imported from India and assembled to enhance various dishes like chicken, seafood and lamb. Fans of Indian food know that in India, many dishes are cooked using ghee, or clarified butter. You can order dishes cooked with ghee here for an extra buck.
When you enter Sizzling Tandoor, you’ll see the elephant-headed Hindu god Ganesh on your right, sitting with a flaming aura of peacock feathers emerging from behind him. It’s a comforting image, as Ganesh is known as the remover of obstacles. The rest of the decor is also decidedly Indian, with cloth paintings and lighted wall sconces that look like medieval Indian hats. A large flat-screen TV behind the service bar was showing a hosted program of Indian music videos on a recent night. And if you prefer your ragas live, a sitar and tabla duo alternate with belly dancers on Fridays and Saturdays from 6 to 9 p.m. Check with the restaurant to see who’s playing which nights.
Service is quick, attentive and helpful when navigating the large menu full of unfamiliar — to many of us — Indian specialties like kofta dilkhush, bhel puri, and laccha paratha, to name a few. Thankfully, a line of italic type under the Indian names tells you in English what you’re going to get.
Indian and domestic beers are available (Kingfisher is on tap as well as in the bottle), and there’s a tidy little wine list at reasonable prices: 2005 Geyser Peak Chardonnay is $24.95, 2002 Sawkar Family Sauvignon Blanc is $18.95, Fetzer Gewurztraminer is $16.95, 2005 Red Rock Merlot is $20.95. If you order wines by the glass, they’re likely to be fresh as the restaurant has a nitrogen-sparge system for keeping oxygen away from opened bottles.
As dinner starts, you’re given a group of dips to use as you please. They include mango-tamarind and cilantro-mint dips, both of which helped pick up the flavor of Vegetable Samosas ($4.95 ). Two of these pyramidal pastries were rather coarse versions of what can be a light appetizer of pastry crust stuffed with steamy spiced potatoes and peas.
Lately I’ve been enjoying the mulligatawny soup at Oliver’s Market in Santa Rosa. It’s a rich, chicken-based, creamy soup highly seasoned with spices and loaded with lentils and vegetables. The Mulligatawny Soup ($2.95 a cup) at Sizzling Tandoor, however, was a disappointingly thin broth with a taste of cardamom but without much substance.
The food improved with the arrival of steaming hot Onion Kulcha ($3.25), a kind of Indian bread layered with onions and cilantro. Every entree is accompanied by naan, a plain bread, but the onion kulcha has extra flavor. The menu lists 11 kinds of breads, so there’s plenty to choose from. These flatbreads are made in a tandoor, or charcoal-fired clay pit oven that gives them a fluffy texture and smoky flavor.
Murgh Tikka Lakhnowi ($15.95) consists of pieces of chicken breast marinated with garam masala, which means “hot spice blend,” that is ubiquitous in Indian cooking. The orange-colored pieces are skewered and broiled in the tandoor oven, then served over tangy sliced cabbage. The Tandoori Mixed Grill ($21.95) was a large plate — enough for two, actually — of tandoor oven-cooked meats and seafood, all of it overcooked but not enough to be spoiled. Lamb pieces, chicken pieces, fish chunks, prawns, and ground lamb kebabs erupted with the flavors of Indian spices.
It may not be the most appetizing-looking item on the menu, but the Prawn Sagwala ($21.95) is a tasty pureed spinach curry laden with jumbo prawns. The prawns and the spinach make an odd couple. My feeling was that they would have been better served separately. This dish was ordered medium spicy, yet provided plenty of burn.
In order to experience the true Indian level of mouth-searing heat, Kashmiri Rogan Josh ($16.95) was ordered “spicy.” Sound the fire alarm! Man, was it hot. But also wicked good. Very tender cubes of lamb are served in a sauce made with a Kashmiri spice blend that includes the black cumin that grows everywhere in Kashmir, north India. It’s topped with a sprinkling of finely diced tomatoes and onion. Here’s where the raita functions as the fire department.
There’s no stinting on spices with vegetarian dishes, either. Gobi Mehtab ($10.95) is an appealing mix of cauliflower florets, potatoes and peas simmered in spices and herbs. It’s one of 12 Indian curried vegetable dishes.
To finish the meal, Sizzling Tandoor offers a Dessert Platter ($9.95) filled with treats. Four different desserts surround a bowl of kheer (sweet rice pudding) in the center of the platter. Ground carrots form the basis for gajjar ka halwa, a pudding-like carrot “cake,” as the restaurant calls it. These are interspersed with two kinds of kulfi — old-fashioned Indian ice cream, one mango-flavored, the other made with pistachio and saffron. Bits of pineapple and melon fill the empty spaces. Plenty for two people.
To sum up: Many variations on hot and spicy vegetables, meats and seafood from around the Indian subcontinent.
Jeff Cox writes a weekly restaurant review column for A&E. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.