If there's one constant among our county's handful of great Indian restaurants, it's that you don't just eat the food, you end up wearing the smells as your new cologne. Your clothes will pick up the scents of your dinner as a magnet will metal shavings. I always know when a co-worker has just returned from his favorite Indian lunch buffet: "You smell like Haveli," I tell him. These hitchhiking aromas are the inevitable souvenirs of an Indian feast well-eaten, reminders of fragrant curries, tandoori-baked breads and spice-blasted biryanis.
You won't get such a memento at the new Tamarind of London at Crystal Cove. You leave as Downy-fresh as when you entered. The kitchen, a prominent feature of the room, is sealed off hermetically behind glass from the rest of the restaurant. This impermeable barrier protects the couture-dressed patrons from the wafting fumes just as a Sea World aquarium holds back the water and the fish.
The restaurant—located at the former pad of Rich Mead's Sage On the Coast, across the parking lot from Javier's and around the corner from Bluefin—is aimed at the same moneyed crowd and thus flaunts the "of London" label as a symbol of its status. But even if you didn't know the original garnered some Michelin stars and boasts of being Gordon Ramsay's favorite Indian restaurant, you still latch on to that London part of the name. After all, if there's anything redeeming about England's food scene, it's that it has the highest concentration of Indian eateries outside the Asian subcontinent. You would have to presume the Brits know curries just as an OC resident would know a good taco or bowl of pho. And since the food at this Tamarind is often exceedingly great, you'd have to conclude they do.
Tamarind of London, tamarindoflondon.com. Open daily, 5-10 p.m. Dinner for two, $40-$60, excluding drinks. Full bar.
Shachi Mehra, the Newport Coast Tamarind's cook, dabbled at restaurants in Palo Alto and New York before landing the gig here. Her curries—from the deep-tomato tang and sweetness of the butter chicken, to a prawn dish coated with red pepper reduced to a powerful paste, to one in which soft fillets of fish melt into a gently spiced coconut gravy with kokum, a sour fruit as prominent in Goan cuisine as seafood—are flavor bursts of the kind the restaurant's piddling serving of basmati rice can't ever hope to parry. More surprising is the naan, especially the version dotted with Laura Chenel goat cheese and scallions. The surface billows, soft and supple to the touch, while the bottom is crusty crisp. That it's sliced into wedges like a pizza rather than the usual uncut disc makes it even better for sharing.
You should start off with the chickpea chaat, which, as with a few other items, is marked by an asterisk denoting the dish is a direct import from the London restaurant. This distant relative of nachos by way of Uttar Pradesh features papri, a deep-fried cracker akin to a Ritz but with the sturdy crunch of a tortilla chip. The crispy coins are drizzled with puréed chickpeas, cool splashes of yogurt, and sharp hits of mint and tamarind chutneys. Take this over the crab cake, which isn't deep-fried so much as it is a cylindrical compaction of steamed crab meat with bits of curry leaves for flavor. The chicken tikka, four bite-sized morsels of white meat as pallid as snow except where the edges are charred, bursts unexpectedly with a juiciness unbecoming of breast meat.
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Everything Mehra cooks is meant for tableside sharing. Stewed to near liquefaction, the smoked, crushed eggplant is the reason to ask for a spoon lest the ambrosia slip through the tines of your fork. And the masala potatoes—a tomato, turmeric and cumin-tinged bowl of almost-mashed spuds—needs to be passed around as though its Thanksgiving. But the saag—equal parts spinach, kale and mustard greens—won't resemble any Indian-buffet saag you've seen before. Chopped to bits, the dish resembles what collects in your lawn mower's bag, all of its verdant texture intact and wonderfully vibrant.
It's unexpectedly honest food such as this that makes the restaurant ultimately relatable despite its cascading wall of water, pair of fire pits outside and customary valet. In fact, Tamarind's prices are actually not unreasonable. There are more expensive Indian restaurants in the county than this one . . . though, unlike Tamarind, none of those will leave your clothes without a trace of the olfactory evidence of a great Indian meal.
This review appeared in print as "Curry for the Cultured: Tamarind of London introduces great Indian cuisine to the rich folks on Newport Coast."