The moment you walk through the door of Tandur Indian Kitchen, you’re greeted by a highly polished marketing plan that puts most other fast-casual restaurants to shame.
With its warm color scheme, open kitchen, and fast-food menu board above the cash registers, the room is carefully designed to comfort any visitor unfamiliar with Indian cuisine. On the wall to the right is a display of spices with info cards; on a table rests cookbooks by executive chef Hari Nayak, available for sale; and once at the counter, you’ll immediately be greeted by an eager cashier offering to help you navigate the menu. Throw in a cute elephant logo, stained concrete floors, plastic-bubble lamp shades, and throbbing electronica as the background music, and you’ve got an Indian restaurant that dares to be fast and hip—traits not exactly synonymous with Indian dining.
And to this I say: Sure, why not? Local owners H.P. and J.T. Patel have devised a fresh restaurant concept that could provide some much-needed spice to Knoxville’s (and the nation’s) casual dining scene.
In fact, fast-food Indian is something I’ve wished for Knoxville ever since eating at Chaat Cafe in Berkley, Calif., many years ago. Specializing in “street food” appetizers like bhel puri, aloo tikki, or paneer pakora, Chaat Cafe dazzled my tastebuds with every bite, each small dish revealing its own myriad flavors and textures. I found myself uncontrollably ordering more and more items, each one a mini-adventure in discovering something new. And, as usual, my first thought upon returning home was: Why can’t Knoxville have one of those?
It’s been a dream too far as Knoxville has never really enjoyed truly great Indian dining. Woodlands started off strong with an unusually deep menu (ah, dosa!) before being sucked into a downward spiral of poor health scores and final closure this year. The longtime favorite Sitar has been subsumed by its popular (and incredibly bland) buffet. Bombay Palace is just sort of okay—it’s got a lot of choices, but it’s difficult to distinguish the spicing from one dish to another. (I haven’t yet tried a new place in Fort Sanders named Sahara Mediterranean & Indian Cuisine, though it’s in that spot next to Chaiyo’s that seems to get a new restaurant every six months.)
So does Tandur at long last fulfill my fantasies for delicious fast-food Indian? Yes and no.
On my first two visits (6502 Kingston Pike, Bearden Hill), I ordered curries because I cannot resist them. (Or fancy sauces in general, to be honest.) First up was that champion of mass-appeal Indian food, tikka masala, which I ordered with paneer (cheese cubes, $9.95). It was fine. But it lacked the sweet, smooth burst of creamy tomato flavor that makes tikka masala so popular. Maybe they’re going for a more adult approach here and don’t use sugar, I told myself, somewhat disappointed by Chef Nayak’s maturity.
Next trip, I ordered kerala coconut curry with tofu ($9.95). It was fine. Again, no heady rush of bold flavor on first taste, even despite the advertised use of Tellicherry peppercorns—a unique black pepper vine-ripened on the Malabar coast in the Indian state of Kerala. And the tofu tasted (and chewed) more like potato croquettes than tofu. Not that I minded, but the paneer tasted more like tofu than the tofu.
In a word, I would describe both of these curries as “flat.” They were tasty, not revelatory—nothing to make you daydream about them the next day. I’m not a chef and I’ve never cooked Indian food, but I suspect that something may get lost in the process of producing fast-food curry. Ideally, a great curry wows you with feats of balanced spicing that inspire temporary addiction until your plate is clean. And it probably takes a while to properly cook up such complex magic.
Of course, I don’t go to Mooya’s or Five Guys expecting the best burger of my life, either. The realm of fast-casual dining is known for being “better,” not necessarily “best.” But when you consider its current competitors, Tandur is most likely the best Indian restaurant in Knoxville now, whether fast or slow. So I just wish its main menu item would leave a stronger impression.
Thankfully, one of the more Americanized dishes on Tandur’s menu did get me excited on another visit.
As many chefs have found, instant “fusion” can be created by simply placing international cuisine into a flour wrap. Boom. Done. So it is with Tandur’s wraps, which include Punjab Chicken and Mumbai Veggies. I opted for the Madras Shrimp ($9.50), and found it to be the most flavorful dish I’ve had there yet. Char-grilled shrimp are embedded in masala rice, which makes for a nice enough combination—but it’s the interplay between a pungent mint chutney and sharp pickled onion that put this wrap over the top. I foresee myself eating more of these, ahem, burritos, as well as the veggie samosas (two for $4.95), which were solid renditions of a common favorite. (Tandur’s famed okra fries could use more okra and less breading, I think.)
Worth a Return Visit?
By default, yes—it’s probably better than Knoxville’s other Indian restaurants. But it could be tastier.