THE COAST IS CLEAR: Mangalorean lobster is mighty fine and easy to eat.
Tamarind Bay in Harvard Square set a new standard for Indian restaurants in Boston, and perhaps in the whole country. It was like going from black-and-white to Technicolor, or flying from Boston to New Delhi or London. This second location, Tamarind Bay Coastal Cuisine, opened with the original chef, Wali Ahmad; a few of the best dishes from the first restaurant; and an emphasis on New England seafood. Although the Brookline location is somewhat spottier and has a shorter menu than Tamarind Bay, it, too, is several cuts above the competition.
|Tamarind Bay Coastal Cuisine | 617.277.1752 | 1665 Beacon Street, Brookline | Open Mon–Thurs, Noon–3 pm and 5–10 pm; Fri, noon–3 pm and 5–10:30 pm; Sat, 5–10:30 pm; and Sun, 5–10 pm | AE, DI, MC, VI | Full bar | No Valet parking | Sidewalk-level access|
Tamarind Bay Coastal’s superiority is evident right from the papadum, which are fresh and curled around like Frisbees, something that doesn’t happen to papadum at other Indian restaurants. Our appetizer choices ran to fried morsels. The most amazing were cabbage chitwa ($9.95), crunchy cakes of red cabbage and onion that had the dry maple flavor of fenugreek. Then there were crispy cheese tikki ($8.50), fritters with some hot red sauce and a slice of jalapeño on top. Yum!
We also had tulsi malai lamb ($10.95), five sausages with subtle coriander spicing and a sneakier, slower-acting version of the red sauce, tempered with mint. Grilled scallops ($12.95) are seared with some dry and hot spices on a bed of cold spinach with seaweed flavor.
For main-dish seafood, Mangalorean lobster ($24.95) is mighty fine, presented sort of semi-shelled — still easy to eat, but this way you know they started with a live lobster — in a rich green curry. Masala crab cake ($20.95) brings two large patties in a more familiar curry laced with cumin and coriander seed.
For vegetarians, Tamarind Bay Coastal is still nirvana. I had to order what I remembered as my favorite thing from the Harvard Square restaurant: lalla musa dal ($14.95). This is a thick brown dish of black lentils cooked overnight, meatier than most meats, with overtones of butter and barbecue. Though I received side dishes of the same dal (and basmati rice) with other entrées, I was glad to have more of it. (Looking on the Internet for a recipe, I found that Sanjeev Kapoor, chef Wali’s former boss on the Indian TV food show Khana Khazana — not to be confused with Hannah Montana — features lalla musa dal at his chain of Yellow Chilli restaurants. So at last we taste the kind of Indian food that lights up gourmets in India.) Puréed red pepper may be part of the magic.
Snake gourd poriyal ($15.95) makes a nice green vegetable. Seeded and chopped snake gourd has a little more taste than most summer squash, and here gets a mild spice from some sautéed mustard seeds (richness, no heat), shredded coconut, and fresh curry leaves. On the side, the plain rice ($2.95) is excellent basmati and presents no distractions. Bhagla bhaat ($6.95), described as yogurt rice, is actually a soupy dish with lots of yogurt and a few more mustard seeds. This cuts any lingering chili burn nicely. Sahi naan ($4.50), with a filling of almond and a hint of sweetness, comes hot out of the tandoor.
Indian beer would be the drink of choice, but with some of the dishes you could get away with Champagne, such as the very well made Cristalino cava brut ($8.50/split) from Spain. The impact of this fine dry sparkler is somewhat lost in Champagne cocktails such as a gulab ($10.50), in which it’s cut with pomegranate, like a kind of tropical kir. A Mumbai martini ($8.50) has nothing to do with a martini, except for the glass. It’s a sweet cocktail of mango and whatever.
Dessert is not a strong course here. The best we had was tomato kulfi ($5), an enticing twist on the usual hard sherbets that are strongly flavored with cardamom and pistachio. This had a smoother texture and more subtlety, probably because it was house made. Molten chocolate cake ($5) wasn’t molten — it was stale, saved only by some vanilla ice cream. Sweet-potato cake ($5) was just a sweet-potato slice with coconut topping.
Service on a slow night was excellent. The room, previously an ordinary Indian restaurant, has been opened to the street with French café windows and repaved with slate and quarry tile; the walls are decorated with modern arts and crafts. All these bistro-esque departures from the typical Indian restaurant are then tempered with classical Indian vocal music. Bollywood soundtracks would be cooler, but perhaps déclassé.
The most obvious compromise in the second location has been chili-pepper intensity, probably so as not to overwhelm delicate New England seafood. Next summer, let’s connect chef Wali with some fresh bluefish. Meanwhile, he should get into crabs, cherrystone clams, and maybe some tuna — those might relight his fire. And the dessert list needs reinforcements. But Tamarind Bay Coastal Cuisine is a worthy running mate on a ticket that was already winning by a landslide.
Robert Nadeau can be reached at RobtNadeau@aol.com.