Restaurant review: Tandoori Pakwan finds its place in the crowd
REVIEW: With 71 other tandoori houses now competing for the same custom in Wellington, newcomers like Tandoori Pakwan must find their Unique Selling Proposition.
Probably this point of difference is not to be found in Tandoori Pakwan's decor, which while pleasant, has not changed a jot since this Indian restaurant was called Mint: still the elegant fat lampshades, the shiny black leather chairs and the black outline of a floral pattern on the long perspex light box, which seems to be begging some colouring-in fanatic to take to it with a set of felt-tip pens.
Nor could Tandoori Pakwan expect much traction from the same old, same old butter chicken, korma, rogan josh, vindaloo and assembled-to-order biryani - even though the restaurant could probably not afford to be without them.
But clearly Tandoori Pakwan has also been keeping a close eye on innovations that appear to be serving their competitors well, and consequently their 100-strong menu is heavily sprinkled with what might be called current hits: mango chicken would be one, goat rara another, as would achari lamb, bhuna chicken, stir-fried balti chicken and chicken chettinad.
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But perhaps most interesting of all is the section headed Indo-Chinese (borrowed, it would appear, from the Curry Pot in Newtown), which is not nearly as improvised as it might sound.
For interestingly, the meeting of garam masala with soy sauce and tomato has a provenance, in Calcutta's century-old Chinatown, where Indo-Chinese fusion restaurants were in place by the 1920s.
Probably the most famous Indo-Chinese dish is Chicken Manchurian, in which chicken is rolled in cornflour and a spice masala and simmered with Chinese aromatics such as ginger, garlic and soy sauce, along with tomato and chilli sauce.
It's one of Tandoori Pakwan's better dishes, and for once, everybody is agreed on its inventor: Nelson Wang, a Calcutta-born Chinese chef, moved to Bombay in the early 1970s and devised Chicken Manchurian at the elite Cricket Club of India, where I myself have dined and been mightily impressed.
While we are on the subject of famous culinary fusions, you might also try the Chicken Tikka Masala here: a goodly heft of charry, earthy flavour from the tandoor allows the chicken pieces to stand out against the spicy, tomatoey gravy so beloved of the Anglo-Celtic palate, illustrating why it's only half a joke to say the British-influenced concoction rates as their new national dish.
Even non-vegetarians might be tempted by one of the 18 vegetarian mains, including aloo baigan, in which eggplant is stewed to mushy perfection in a pungent onion gravy.
We arrived shortly after 6pm on a Tuesday night, graveyard night, in early January, when Wellington is deserted, so were not particularly surprised to find ourselves the only customers.
But no sooner had we ordered than a birthday party of 20 traipsed through the door. First they began to blow up balloons, and then everybody sang "Happy Birthday" as the birthday girl herself walked through the door (and burst into tears, for goodness sake).
For this we received two apologetic visits to our table – one from a friend or sister, the other from the matriarch. But really there was no need: my guest and I agreed a rowdy restaurant is much better than a ghostly one.
ONE THING TO TRY
Naan bread comes in many subtle variations, and everybody must have their own favourite. Some like big, puffy, generous pillows, pudgy and soft. These are lovely in their own right, but even so, others like me prefer naan as cooked at Tandoori Pakwan – smaller, thinner (albeit still puffy) and with a slightly crisp base.
AT A GLANCE
18-24 Allen St
Ph: 385 7709
Open for lunch Tues-Sun, dinner 7 nights
Licence: Fully licensed
Price range of mains: $17-$19.50
Cost: $65 for two (excluding wine)
Food: four stars
Service: four stars
Ambience: three and a half stars
Wine list: three stars