I can't decide if the first sign of trouble at The Classic Tandoor restaurant was the décor or the Musak. I suppose it couldn't have been the décor, because it was such a relief to enter the dark, cool interior after crossing the endless acres of scorching parking lot, to escape the high-noon blare of sun bouncing off the relentlessly orange storefronts of the Carillon Center. Inside, we blinked in surprise: The cavernous room is done up in suburban suave, all glossy dark woods, plush carpeting and etched glass accented with shrubby green plants.
So it must have been the Musak that initially set my teeth on edge. As we waited in the marble-tiled entryway for a host or hostess to greet us, my first impression was formed by an instrumental rendition of Barry Manilow's "Memory" on what sounded like a baseball-stadium organ at top volume. As the dapper host hustled us to a table, the song shifted to "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head," I think, although I was trying hard to keep that sprightly tune from drilling its way into my head where I knew it would lodge for the rest of the afternoon.
Our table, conveniently only a few steps away from the swinging kitchen door, turned out to be an oval sheet of glass laid across the outstretched wings of two giant swans carved from faux mahogany. I dislike glass-topped tables in general, as I believe that whatever you do with your knees, lap and napkin during a meal should remain decorously hidden from sight, but I was fortunate to get the seat between the swans. My luckless companions at either end of the table were forced to straddle the swans' heads, and thus dined with the beaks of the dratted birds pressed firmly between their legs.
The Classic Tandoor
10001 Westheimer in the Carillon Center
Abandoned by the host, we waited in vain for menus. We finally flagged down a speeding busboy, who slowed only long enough to tell us, "No menu. Buffet only."
The Classic Tandoor offers a daily lunch buffet for $9.95, we learned, and a "grand" buffet on Friday and Saturday nights. Only on other evenings is one is allowed to order from the menu. I sat absentmindedly kicking a swan's rump and tried to remember the last time I equated an all-you-can-eat buffet with a fine-dining experience. I came up blank.
Another busboy zoomed by, dropping our cutlery with a clatter on the glass. We took that as a cue to wander off to the buffet line. I liked the fact that the Classic Tandoor clearly labels its steam trays; it helped us warn each other of what to avoid. The battered and fried vegetable pakora and vegetable cutlets, for example, should be skipped, unless one is a starving vegetarian. I tried to guess from the general outline of the pakora lumps which vegetable was which, but even though I carefully picked differently sliced and rounded shapes, mine all turned out to be soggy cauliflower draped in a thick, underdone coating. The vegetable cutlets were essentially potato patties, also undercooked and mealy, also cloaked in a chewy chickpea flour batter tinged with garam masala.
We had better luck with the saag paneer, a very mild version of this dish of creamed spinach with fresh farmer's-style cheese. The dal makhni, creamed brown lentils, was also mild-mannered and inoffensive. I'd think less-desperate vegetarians would be quite satisfied with either of these two contenders, though perhaps not at the full dinner-plate price of $10.95 each. Moving into the meat zone, we found two soupy korma curries, one lamb and one chicken. We liked the sweet, coconut-creamy flavor of the curries, gently spiced with cumin and coriander, but bemoaned the gristly, stringy meat of the lamb shanks; better to go with the chicken, as you must contend with messy deboning in either case.
We managed to snag iced tea from another managerial type in shirt and tie; the organizational chart at Classic Tandoor didn't appear to have any slots for "waiters" between the bosses and the busboys. I wished they had let us look at a menu, as we'd have liked to try one of the yogurt drinks, lassi served plain, sweet or salty ($2.50), or made with mangoes ($2.95). Oh, well.
I had my best hopes pinned on the pretty, brick-red tandoori chicken, usually my favorite item from a tandoor oven. We found two versions of it on the line, as well: one mild and one spicy. We determined that the spicy tandoori chicken, arranged at the end of the buffet on a giant metal pan shaped like a flattened wok, was the better of the two; it was slightly less dried out and a little less tough, especially if one cleverly chose a whole drumstick rather than an abbreviated chunk of thigh. Even when we launched ourselves at the steam table the moment the milder chicken pieces were dumped out fresh from the kitchen -- classic buffet strategy, that -- we found them disappointingly dry and overcooked.
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I'd also been looking forward to a raita salad, and found the rudimentary makings at the end of the buffet line: a platter of raw vegetables, mostly sliced cucumbers and tomatoes, along with a bowl of thinned yogurt flecked with mint to spoon over them. I swabbed the naan through the yogurt as well, mostly to try to remove some of the enormous blackened, charred blisters from the bread's surface. The chewy naan wasn't as light and fluffy as I'd hoped, nor was the pappadom as crisp as I'd prefer, but at least the latter's companion dips offered the spark of seasoning I was craving by this time. One was a vehemently aggressive blend of raw green chiles, cilantro and lime; the other a sweeter, tamarind-based sauce that functioned well as an antidote.
For dessert, we fished out golden, deep-fried balls of gulab jamun bobbing in a vat of sugary syrup. Crisp outside, spongy and cakelike inside, the balls of dough, milk and sweet cheese were much like fritters, delicately scented with cardamom and rosewater. The gulab was good; our mistake was in also scooping up bowls of the kheer. "Yow!" yelped my friend. "What the hell is that?" The sweet rice pudding was so astringently flavored that his eyes watered. It wasn't just the cardamom and cinnamon; there was something else in there we couldn't identify that tasted like sunscreen lotion or room deodorizer, we couldn't decide which. It was too scary to contemplate further.
"You know, I read somewhere that Houston has some of the best Indian restaurants in the country," said one of my friends, trying to jolly our dispirited group. "Ours are even better than the ones in New York City." I think that's what she was saying, anyway, as the piped-in Hammond organ had just launched into an ear-splitting rendition of the theme from Phantom of the Opera. Maybe what she read is true, but I'm afraid Classic Tandoor isn't the place to test the theory. All it taught me, alas, was a fresh appreciation for Ravi Shankar.
The Classic Tandoor, 10001 Westheimer in the Carillon Center, (713)532-3131