Restaurant review: Tandoori Grill

G.A. Benton, Columbus Alive

My brain and pulse were racing in time to the rave music playing. The stylized lighting and colorful, abstract decorations in my periphery took on an exaggerated presence. Just when I felt I might be losing control, the music began to slur and slow and then it stopped.

No, I wasn't inebriated or at a dance club or any more deranged than I usually am. I was eating food so wildly spicy that it instigated a mind-bending experience until, like a spell suddenly breaking, the portable digital music system throbbing with Pakistani hip-hop and Bollywood-influenced techno tunes crashed inside of Tandoori Grill.

Snapping to, I quit chewing and greedily chugged cooling sips of respectable Mango Lassi ($3) - Tandoori Grill doesn't serve alcohol (I told you I was sober). Surveying the room with renewed interest, I realized that the place's propulsive soundtrack and fashionable, modern design belied an otherwise mom-and-pop atmosphere.

Serving about four years in the Bethel Road strip mall called Olentangy Shopping Center, Tandoori Grill is the snazzier arm of Apna Bazaar, the little Pakistani market and counter eatery to which it's attached. If Tandoori Grill still flies under your Indian food radar, I suggest you readjust your restaurant altimeter.

Not all of the place's inexpensive and delicious northern Indian and Pakistani fare is intense. For instance, the three-bite Potato Samosa ($1.15) is a pleasant-but-simple pastry filled with curried mashed potatoes. If you prefer meat and a punchier filling, pick the Chicken Samosa ($1.25). Both come with thin house raita that tastes like yogurt blended with mixed Indian pickle, and both could've been crisper and less oily.

For a more interesting appetizer, try Tandoori Grill's hefty version of Bun Kabab ($5). It's a Pakistan-derived hybrid of an American hamburger and chaat - dynamically garnished subcontinent street food - that's uncommon, spicy and irresistible. I just wish mine had been warmer and presented before my entrée arrived.

Ordering the Family Platter ($22), which feeds about three hungry people, is an economic way to sample multiple courses. Crispy naan, a small salad plus fluffy basmati rice fragrant with clove, cinnamon and black peppercorn accompany three chosen kebabs - all guaranteed to be expertly seared.

My terrific meat trio: mildly spicy and gingery boneless tandoori chicken with a tenderness and juiciness that indicated an extended, yogurt-based marinade; tangier, spicier and cumin-kissed reshmi chicken tikka; and, my favorite, fantastic, chili-flecked, cinnamon-scented ground lamb seekh kebab.

Meatless Chana Masala ($8) is another familiar dish given a Tandoori Grill upgrade. Here, it's huge and sports an unusual depth of flavor and chili heat.

Moving on to more esoteric fare, Tandoori Grill's humongous Haleem Chicken ($14) is a standout stew that's fiery yet nuanced. The dense blend of lentils, barley, wheat and shredded chicken is slow-cooked until everything breaks down into a mass with the consistency of thick refried beans enriched with loads of ghee, a type of clarified butter. Although an earthy, heavy dish, its curry-style seasoning features leavening high notes that can be amplified by side garnishes of crispy fried onions, lemon, cilantro and diced jalapeno.

Wok-cooked Karhai - I got mine with good-quality shrimp ($12) - is another outstanding dish rarely seen around town. Fresh tomatoes, tomato paste, garlic, ginger, chilies, plenty of ghee and a brilliant battery of herbs and spices create a tangy and incendiary sauce-broth with layers of flavor.

This is the blazing hot, complex curry I was eating when the music stopped - so be forewarned that it has the potential to blur "bon appetit" into "bon voyage." But if you enjoy hurts-so-good botanical heat like me, it's a delicious vehicle for an endorphin-fueled mini-vacation you can take while simply sitting at a table.

Tandoori Grill

808 Bethel Rd., Northwest Side