From London's Mayfair area, Tamarind of London comes to Newport Beach with the tandoori-based cuisine of Northwest India, sporting an American accent.
Here, the elegant Michelin-starred dining establishment has relaxed into Orange County's more casual beach mode. Executive Chef Sachi Mehra, who worked at the London establishment, has planned a menu to suit the local palate. So alongside such Indian classics as chicken tikka, you will also find citrus shrimp and quinoa salad with beets, oranges, cilantro and chives.
Beautifully renovating the space formerly occupied by Sage-on-the Coast, the only real giveaway that this is an Indian restaurant is the row of three shiny red tandoor ovens at the front of the open kitchen. There is a large, high-ceilinged dining area to the right with comfortable booths along the walls and windows. On the left is a large enclosed bar area with tables for dining and sliding glass doors that open out to a small plant-filled patio dominated by two large fire pits.
Our accommodating waitress was happy to serve our food in the unusual order we selected. We began with two vegetable side dishes listed in the "To Share" category along with the not-very-authentic goat cheese and scallion naan bread.
With its fluffy dough and cheesy center, it functioned as a delightful and tasty scoop for the excellent smoked crushed eggplant. The smokiness provided a subtle aftertaste, while the predominant flavors were cumin, tomato and a nice degree of spiciness.
Our other dish, the "five mix yellow lentils" (pigeon peas, chickpeas, pink, white and red lentils) arrived like a soup without a spoon. It was watery and the flavors were diluted. We mentioned this to our waitress, who whisked it back to the kitchen for the chef to redo and took it off the bill. The second coming was much superior— thicker and more textured with the delicate flavors of ginger, cilantro, lemon and a hint of heat.
Our second round of dishes was from the "Firsts" menu: steamed mussels and seared scallops.
We ordered paratha on the side for sopping up the juices. Paratha is unleavened whole wheat bread with ghee smeared between the thin layers and baked in the tandoor. Ghee is brown butter with the milk solids removed. It was especially tasty dipped in the light coconut milk broth that accompanied the small plump mussels. The broth was accented with hints of fennel coriander and curry leaves.
Several items on the menu have squiggly symbols beside them, indicating that they are straight from the London menu. One of these is the spice-crusted seared scallops. Three rather thin scallops were dusted with ground fennel seed and star anise, and then seared.
Each rested on a dollop of smoked tomato chutney and was topped with more of the condiment as well. Although the description sounded inviting, the seasoning on the scallops got lost in the chutney, which tasted like mildly spiced tomato paste.
Of course, we had to try a curry. We selected one that was new to us, spicy duck. The chunks of meat had been slow simmered in a rich tomato based sauce that had depth of flavor, and a nice amount of heat but no distinctiveness. Also, the duck could easily have been lamb; it had no "duckiness." A great curry usually has a dominant spice and then underlying layers of flavor.
The simpler dishes from the tandoor oven include juicy marinated New Zealand lamb chops and half a jidori chicken.
We were wooed by the promise of jaggery caramel on the rice pudding. Jaggery is unrefined cane sugar with deep dark flavor. The coconut milk rice pudding was bland and barely sweet. All of the flavor came from the grated coconut and the caramely grated jaggery.
Indian restaurants are few and far between in Orange County, so it's nice to have another one on the scene, especially one that is so attractive.
ELLE HARROW and TERRY MARKOWITZ were in the gourmet food and catering business for 20 years. They can be reached for comments or questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tamarind of London
Where: In Crystal Cove Promenade shopping center, 7862 E. Coast Hwy., Newport Beach
When: 5 to 10:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday; 5 to 9:30 p.m. Sunday; Happy Hour is from 4 to 6 p.m. daily.
Information: (949) 715-8338 tamarindoflondon.com