Lovers of Indian food may recognize Tamarind chef-owner Bhim Thapa from stints at Blue Taj and Persis Biryani, but what he’s doing here, in his own place, follows neither of those.
Here, he’s putting together a personal, relatively small menu studded with a smattering of dishes you’re unlikely to see elsewhere (bhuna kaleja: chicken livers in a Himalayan-style spice paste) and gobi matar paneer keema (a curry with grated cauliflower, the mild paneer cheese and peas). And he’s doing it in a personal way – meaning he was cooking on our visits, emerging occasionally from the kitchen to ferry plates to tables and chat with diners, and just one server managed the whole place.
That’s both a wonderful thing and a challenging one.
Most diners clearly enjoy the attention, and we watched him greet regulars warmly. (And if he occasionally mentions “inventing” a dish when he actually means he’s made a known dish his own with excellent individualized spice mixes and differing techniques, we shouldn’t mind.) But the pace does back up service, on occasion too much for even a patient diner.
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That said, I’d wait happily anytime for those chicken livers, and that interestingly creamy vegetarian entree – and for the Tamarind lamb curry (featuring nice chunks of meat), the gorgeously spicy pickle blend, the marvelous malai kebab (yogurt-marinated chicken from the tandoor), beautifully delicate basmati sparked here and there with cardamom, and perfect naans of all sort. Everything we tried from Tamarind’s tandoor, the clay oven used to bake breads and roast meats, was excellent.
So were a very straightforward mango chutney and a quite-thin version of the cooling yogurt sauce called raita.
Thapa, whose heritage is Nepalese but was born and raised in India (“all over,” he says; “my dad was in the army”), is playing with both ingredients and techniques from the incredibly diverse landscape that is Indian cuisine. So, for example, his panch puran daal tadka takes the yellow lentils from northern Indian cooking, seasons them with five spices from the east, and finishes them with a southern technique: tempering the spices in oil, infusing the oil with their vibrance, rather than dry-roasting them in the pan, northern-style.
This is confident, bright food, fitting in a dining room with vivid teal walls stenciled, sari-like, with gold buta shapes (think paisley). Filaments glow in various-shaped pendant lighting, and wood-topped tables are spaced well enough that the place isn’t deafening despite the metal chairs and concrete flooring. A tiny bar’s a great spot to wait for your takeout, except that so far, beer and wine are unavailable. (Thapa estimates another month.)
Cold water arrives in glass bottles left on your table, a welcome nicety, and white tableware shows off the rich colors of the fare nicely. Our server bustled with earnest if linear effort, and brought a myriad of takeout vehicles; plan to box up a few things, because portions are generous.
Don’t try to rush through Tamarind. Plan to settle in for a bit, and you’ll be most likely to enjoy the ride.
Regional and creative Indian food done neatly, in a tiny, handsome space.
SERVICE: ☆☆ 1/2
10416 E. Independence Blvd., Matthews; 704-841-8979; www.tamarindmatthews.com.
HITS: Tandoor items are a particular strength, and if you’re a fan of chicken livers, don’t miss the bhuna kaleja.
MISSES: Servers aren’t always clear on what vegan means, though the menu offers dishes made that way, so be sure to be specific.
PRICES: Lunch $9-$12; dinner $10-$24.
HOURS: Lunch 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and dinner 5-10 Tuesday-Sunday.
INSPECTION SCORE: 96.5 Sept. 17.
☆☆☆☆ = excellent; ☆☆☆ = good; ☆☆ = fair; ☆ = poor