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Friday, March 16, 2007
TOKYO FOOD FILE
Subtle spices from the tandoor grill
The tandoor oven has come a long way from its humble roots in northern India and what is now Pakistan. Basic but so effective, its design has remained unchanged for thousands of years: a simple terra-cotta cylinder, maybe a meter high and 25 cm across, surrounded by thick insulation to keep the heat in. With temperatures inside reaching almost 500 C., this is the perfect medium for grilling meat, sealing in the juice and flavor, and equally ideal for producing fluffy oven breads.
These days, any Indian restaurant -- here no less than in New York or London -- that wants to be taken seriously must have its own tandoor, with the chef installed behind a glass screen in full view of the customers. And yet, until recently we've had very few places that have explored the potential of these ovens -- an omission that has been more than rectified by the opening late last year of Khyber, Tokyo's first upmarket tandoor grill.
One look at the black and gold sign and the striped awnings that mark its position on busy Showa-dori, is enough to tell you that Khyber positions itself several levels above standard-issue curry joints. Despite the posh facade, the interior is plain, with only the simplest of decorations on the rough-textured walls. The effect is serene and spacious, with no tourist tat to distract the eye, no keening Bollywood soundtrack music to fill your ears. High vaulted arches curve across the ceiling, supported by pillars -- more Punjabi palace than the teeming bazaars you'd find up by the Afghan border.
There is nothing plebeian about the food, either. But that is only to be expected: Khyber has been set up by the same people behind two of our favorite Indian restaurants, Dhaba India and Gurgaon [see box below]. In terms of overall flavor and quality, this is the best of the lot.
The extensive menu has two pages of tandoor options alone. Where other eateries might offer a choice, say, between basic chicken tikka, mutton and fish, here you can pick from five different chicken preparations alone, ranging from mild Chicken Afghani to Chicken Dil Pasand, an item rarely if ever found on these shores. Where to start? You can't go wrong with the Khyber Plate (1,800 yen per person).
The large metal platter arrives covered with chunks of meat, seafood and other delicacies fresh from the oven and arrayed over a strip of fresh green plantain leaf. Pride of place rightfully goes to the eponymous Khyber Tandoori Chicken. Marinaded in a piquant mix of yogurt and red Kashimiri chilies, then grilled in the tandoor until it has turned a delectable golden-brown, the flesh is so delicate and juicy you will want to gnaw every morsel off the bone (the lack of a fingerbowl notwithstanding).
Alongside the chicken you will find mutton Sheekh Kababs, the ground meat even spicier than the chicken; a couple of king prawns; soft swordfish, bland in itself but with a flavorful coating of masala spices; a plump, fist-size head of cauliflower, baked as golden as the chicken but even softer inside; and a couple of cubes of firm, white paneer (homemade curd cheese), which is first dusted with mung bean flour and panfried, before being skewered and grilled in the tandoor.
The chicken and paneer were our outright favorites but everything was excellent. Enhancing them further, they were served with two sauces, one of sharp tamarind, the other of mint, both prepared in-house with none of the harsh vinegar flavors you find in shop-bought jars.
Wheat, not rice, is the staple in the tandoor homeland, and at Khyber they pay equal attention to their breads. Uniquely in Tokyo (but just as you'd find in Punjab or Pakistan), they operate a separate oven solely dedicated to preparing their small but delectable nan (360 yen each). However, do not fail to try the specialty of the house, rumali roti (also 360 yen), a thin, griddle-cooked white bread as fine and soft as a handkerchief, that goes perfectly with those grilled meats.
There are plenty of other touches of subtlety and refinement throughout the menu. The appetizers include kofta (croquettes) of minced lotus and mung beans, served in a delectable sauce flavored with creamed walnuts; and kulcha (they call them "Indian pizza") made with either Gorgonzola cheese or foie gras (this is the enigmatic "Canard Levar" on the menu). They even feature oysters on the tandoor menu.
Beer goes with Indian food, right? Khyber begs to differ. Their concise wine list covers all the right areas, mostly straightforward varietals that won't be overwhelmed by the spices. In fact, we were happy to choose the cheapest bottle on the menu, a Vinho Verde (just 2,800 yen) with a perky acidity and slight sparkle that was ideal, even with the curries with which we rounded off our meal.
You get the idea. Khyber is not a quick, cheap pit stop: It's a place where you settle in to appreciate the cuisine at a leisurely pace. This is true, even at lunchtime, even though the standard 1,300 yen Tandoori Lunch (either chicken or vegetarian) is served promptly.
If we have a complaint, it is that Khyber doesn't have much character. Despite the great food, it still hasn't developed an atmosphere of its own, something you notice especially if you are dining solo. On that criterion alone, it cannot supplant Dhaba India as our pick for Tokyo's best Indian restaurant.
Until Gurgaon opened a dozen years ago, we were forced to choose between unexciting but reliable curry houses with standard-issue menus and Bollywood decor (Moti being the prime example) or fusty, colonial-plush establishments like the good old Taj, in Akasaka.
Gurgaon ("Sugar Cane Village") offered welcome relief with its rustic decor -- rough plastered walls and colorful naf wall paintings -- along with authentic Indian regional cooking prepared by chefs from the subcontinent who looked like they cared.
It's still there, and the curries are just as forthright. Our favorite remains the pull-no- punches Channa Masala ("the taste of the food stalls in front of old Delhi Station," the menu says) served with basmati rice. The only reason Gurgaon feels less remarkable is because our expectations are now higher. Recommended.
Gurgaon, Ginza 106 Bldg. B1F, 1-6-13 Ginza, Chuo-ku; tel: (03) 3563-0623; www.dhabaindia.com/gurgaon/index.html; nearest station: Ginza-Itchome (Yurakucho Line). Open: 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. (last order) and 5-10:30 p.m. (last order); Saturday, Sunday and holidays: noon-9:30 p.m. English menu; some English spoken; no credit cards.
Dhaba India, around the corner from Kyobashi Station, specializes in the spicy, coconut-rich, tamarind-infused cuisine of southern India. Besides serving top-value set meals, they also produce wonderful dosas , those paper-thin pancakes that are such an essential part of the diet in the bottom half of the subcontinent.
Adding to the pleasure is the cheerful atmosphere, the relaxing decor and the ever-friendly welcome from the Indian chefs. This is not just the best southern Indian eating in town, it's our favorite Indian restaurant bar none.
Dhaba India, 2-7-9 Yaesu, Chuo-ku; tel: (03) 3272- 7160; www.dhabaindia.com/index.html; nearest station: Kyobashi (Ginza Line). Open: 11.15 a.m.-2.30 p.m. (last order) & 5-10 p.m. (last order); Saturday: 11.30 a.m.-2.30 p.m.; 5-9 p.m.; closed: Sunday and holidays. English menu; some English spoken; most credit cards.