- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 14, 2006

You almost expect Scheherazade to spin her tales for the Persian king in Tandoori Nights, the new Indian restaurant in Arlington. She, alas, is not there, but two graceful maidens adorn the ceiling of the restaurant, their bright red garments flowing down the walls like a brilliant river.

The five murals in the restaurant are bold and bright, the work of Washington painter and muralist Freya Grand. Golden, silky gauze creates a quasi-tent over one table; a mirrored wall reflects the colors and lights. The large bar at the entrance to the restaurant has comfortable chairs and amusingly shaped sofas.

The Clarendon Tandoori Nights is Neal Miglani’s second venture. (The first Tandoori Nights is in Gaithersburg.) Mr. Miglani’s wife, Shivani, is the executive chef. Though the cooking lacks the heat ordinarily associated with Indian cuisine and the menu describes most dishes as “delicately spiced,” the food nevertheless consists of fine, traditional Indian cooking.

The menu, which describes as well as lists dishes, is printed in color on glossy colored paper. It’s a bit difficult to read, and the prices, though reasonable, are almost impossible to decipher in the dim light of a single candle on the dinner table.

As soon as a diner is seated, a small basket of thin, crisp papadum appears with three dipping sauces, including a tangy coriander chutney also served with many of the dishes. The three sauces range from sweet to spicy; each is delicious.

Apart from a list of appetizers, the menu is divided into various specialties: tandoori, vegetable, chicken, seafood and lamb. Tandoori specialties include a whole fish, salmon cubes, house-made Indian cottage cheese (paneer), lamb shanks, vegetables, lamb chops and chicken.

Vegetable specialties include potatoes, chickpeas, eggplant, cauliflower, okra and black lentils with red kidney beans. Filet of fish in a fiery sauce; Bombay fish curry; and shrimps sauteed with bell peppers, onion and tomatoes are some of the seafood specialties. Chicken specialties are a mix of curries with a variety of vegetables and spices.

Shrimps and prawns, which are slightly larger than the shrimps, turn out to be among the best dishes we sampled. An appetizer of garlic shrimp consists of four good-size shrimp cooked in white wine and honey. The shrimp are fresh, tender and perfectly prepared in a sweet, subtly spiced sauce. The sauce is a happy contrast to other savory starters, such as mixed vegetable pakora, a spicy combination of chopped vegetable patties dipped in chickpea-flour batter and deep-fried into crisp, spicy morsels.

Aloo tikki are described as potato patties stuffed with cheese, nuts and raisins. What comes to the table is a dish of two potato puffs, one on top of the other. The puffs taste only of mild mashed potatoes. The nuts, raisins and cheese were not visible to the eye or palatable to the tongue. The chickpeas accompanying the potato puffs, however, are a winner, tangy and tasty.

Among the main courses, prawns vindaloo are terrific. Five large juicy shrimp are served in a thick, rich tomato sauce with chunks of potato. The sauce, though not fiery, is nicely hot and fragrant with a mix of spices.

A dish of lamb in creamy spinach, mildly spiced and served with a bowl of rice, is another fine main course. The lamb pieces are fork-tender, and the spinach has a good, fresh taste. Curiously, spinach, which appears in many Indian dishes, appears rarely on Tandoori Nights’ menu.

Tandoori chicken, a mainstay of any Indian restaurant with a tandoor oven, disappoints. Dry and overcooked, the chicken has none of the fragrant, moist tenderness of genuine tandoori chicken. Although our waiter assured us that the kitchen has a tandoor oven, the menu refers to the chicken as “grilled to your order.” We were not asked how we wanted to order it, and the chicken was not grilled, but overbaked. Unfortunately, it was too dark to read on the menu that chicken tandoori is available in half portions as well as a whole chicken. Most of our chicken went to waste.

We ordered naan, the classic Indian flat bread, with our meal but again were disappointed. Naan should be soft and chewy, with just a few crisp edges. At Tandoori Nights, the naan is generally crisp with just a few chewy bits. Mango chutney is excellent, but the raita — yogurt with tiny bits of cucumber and tomato — is too thin.

Desserts at Tandoori Nights are classics: milk balls in rose-flavored syrup (gulab jamun), rice pudding, cheese patties soaked in cardamom and rose-water syrup, and an Indian ice cream made of thickened milk topped with cardamom.

Tandoori Nights has a satisfactory wine list with a number of choices by the glass, and several good Indian beers.

Tandoori Nights tends to be underspiced, but most dishes are good and attractively presented, the ambience is lively and diverting, the service attentive and pleasant. The restaurant presents a fine traditional Indian meal.

RESTAURANT: Tandoori Nights, 2800 Clarendon Blvd., Arlington; 703/248-8333

HOURS: Lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Dinner Monday through Thursday 5 to 10 p.m., Friday 5 to 11 p.m., Saturday noon to 11 p.m., Sunday noon to 10 p.m.

PRICES: Appetizers $5 to $13; main courses $8 to $22; desserts $5 to $10.

CREDIT CARDS: All major cards

PARKING: 24-hour metered street parking; parking lot next door half price with validation

ACCESS: Wheelchair accessible (upstairs on second floor of a semicircular shopping center)

METRO: Clarendon (Orange Line)

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