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Washington Post
Food Section

Wednesday, November 15, 2000

By Sue Kovach Shuman

When Devainder Mathur was in fifth grade in New Delhi, he came home from school hungry. His mother was talking with a neighbor, ignoring him. So he set a pan on the stove and starting putting whatever food he could find into it, then threw in spices. Whatever it was turned out pretty good, he remembers, and surprised him. It also triggered his love of cooking.

Today he owns Taste of Tandoor, open since May in Woodbridge's Smoketown Plaza. Some restaurant decor, such as the red upholstered booths, are holdovers from the previous Indian restaurant, but his green circular chairs and sparkly burgundy trim add pizazz.

Mathur, 36, received a business management degree in India, then worked in dining rooms and hotels, including a Sheraton and a Hyatt. His attentive manner may have been honed as he tended bar, then working as a food and beverage manager.

"People tell me my food is very close to home," which he considers a high compliment, he said.

He and chef Kamal Muhammad (Mathur cooks on Tuesdays) choose ingredients carefully for nutritional value and taste. Foods are mildly spiced, but more spice is added upon request.

His restaurant should be on the list of anyone eager to explore Indian cuisine, which is literally sprinkled with aromatic spices and herbs: cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, cloves, cardamom, cumin, turmeric, coriander. Add to that mint, garlic and peppercorns in numerous combinations, and you'll appreciate the culinary skill. Too much or not enough of any one ingredient can sink a dish.

Everything is made from scratch, even the yogurt and cheese, a task that would dampen the enthusiasm and creativity of some chefs. But those ingredients are crucial to making dishes work at Taste of Tandoor.

Meals start with warm, browned naan, a thin flat bread made daily. It's served with a thin yogurt and cucumber dip, a pleasing mix of hot and cool.

You could make a feast of just breads, plus a bowl of rich lentil soup enhanced with cilantro or tomato soup with mustard seeds. Pair that with onion kulcha, bread stuffed with onions and herbs, or aloo paratha, whole wheat bread stuffed with seasoned mashed potatoes, or four other breads. Perhaps an order of sweetly spiced mango chutney would round out such a meal, or vegetable fritters of cauliflower, zucchini and eggplant. Another option is a vegetable turnover (samosa) stuffed with potatoes and green peas seasoned with cumin and other spices.

The all-you-can-eat lunch buffet is a value at $7.95 on weekdays and $8.95 weekends. It changes daily but always has at least two kinds of chicken, basmati rice pilaf, salad and vegetables.

Nilda Rendino of Woodbridge said she fell in love with Indian food when she lived in England. The buffet lunches, she said, "are good for discovering favorites."

The secret to Tandoori cuisine is the clay oven, and the restaurant has two. Baked or barbecued in the oven, marinated chicken, lamb, fish and seafood turn out moist and evenly cooked. One of the restaurant's specialties is Tandoori chicken ($8.95 as an entree) marinated overnight in yogurt, lemon juices and spices, then charbroiled. The reddish poultry was on a recent lunch buffet, as was butter chicken, which is cooked in a light tomato sauce. Daal--lentils cooked with garlic, ginger, coriander and onions--was especially tasty.

The menu is extensive, with 38 entrees (most less than $9.95), kabobs to seafood.

You want chicken? Take your pick from 11 versions, grilled, stewed, sauced, marinated, as well as charbroiled pieces cooked in the chef's secret cilantro-laced sauce.

Like lamb? You'll be hard pressed to decide among the nine entrees--chunks or minced lamb marinated in spices and skewered for kabobs, lamb cooked with saffron rice, lamb in a creamy yogurt-based stew, lamb mixed with spinach, and more.

Salmon retains its character after being marinated in a yogurt-based sauce and broiled in the clay oven.

What Muhammad, who worked at Haandi Indian Restaurant in Falls Church for nine years, does to shrimp is interesting. When cooked briefly over intense heat with fresh tomato, onions and peppers in a wok (karachi shrimp), it's colorful. When broiled in the clay oven after being marinated in lemon juice and yogurt, or when simmered in coconut milk and cooked with ginger, garlic, curry and other spices, it's exotic.

If you can't decide what to eat, order the mixed grill with shrimp, lamb shish kebab and boneless chicken chunks for $12.95.

The meatless meals--there are 11 vegetarian entrees--are superb. Our palakh paneer, fresh spinach and homemade cottage cheese cooked with turmeric, ginger, onion and coriander, was generous enough for another take-home meal.

Don't skip dessert. Mathur is not humble about his homemade ice cream (kulfi). "I am the best."

He heats milk into a thick cream, then grinds in mango, sometimes with a little pulp. The result is a semi-frozen pale orange ball that is surprisingly not at all sweet. He also makes ice cream flavored with cardamom and pistachio.

If you have a sweet tooth, try gulab jamun, dry milk and cheese dumplings dipped in honey sauce. We felt like toddlers playing with the slippery gold orbs.

Chai masala tea was intoxicatingly aromatic, and we downed several cups gratefully on a chilly day.

Three Indian beers and California wines are available.

The restaurant is busiest Sundays, said Mathur, when many of his Indian acquaintances come to dine.

Taste of Tandoor

* Address: 13760 Smoketown Rd., Woodbridge
    Phone # 703-897-7200
    Fax# 703-7400

* Hours: Lunch, Monday-Friday 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m., Saturday and Sunday noon-3 p.m.; dinner, Monday-Thursday and Sunday 5-9:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5-10 p.m. Carryout available.

* Credit cards: Major cards accepted.

* Low-fat selections: Vegetables cooked with spices.

* Health-conscious: Heaven for vegetarians.

The Washington Post, Restaurant Reviews. 9254 Center St., Manassas, Va. 20110

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