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Spice from the suburbs

How did it happen, this suburbanisation of Indian food in Australia? Not only Indian, of course. The local Chinese is written into the Australian psyche as indelibly as macaroni cheese or spaghetti bolognese.

It's practically the comfort food of our childhoods, and that might have remained how long it's been since I ate at one of those neighbourhood Chinese if it hadn't been for that fateful, howling night a year ago when the trees crashed on to the pitch-dark road forcing a retreat from a journey to Jenolan Caves, then crashed again on to a train, which blocked our panicked retreat and sent us scurrying in the dark for the only light, the Chinese in the main street of Lithgow.

Eggplant roasted in a clay oven and then cooked with tomato, onion and mild spices,  at the Tandoor Indian restaurant  ...
Eggplant roasted in a clay oven and then cooked with tomato, onion and mild spices, at the Tandoor Indian restaurant in Belconnen. Photo: Richard Briggs

Nothing so dramatic has guided our trip this Sunday night, and although our location is a darkish street in Belconnen, it has nothing of the obscurity of Lithgow. We've been directed here by a foodie friend, who tells us the Tandoor Indian in Chandler Street is nothing fancy, but worth a visit, a cut above many of the suburban Indian eateries in the capital.

A couple of years ago, Canberra food historian Colin Bannerman looked at the ubiquity of Indian restaurants, and concluded (based on some Yellow Pages research) that they're the third most popular ''ethnic'' cuisine in the Canberra region after Chinese and Italian, solidly improving their position in the past decade or so. A shift to spicier food after generations of blandness? A spinoff from the Bollywood movie industry? Something to do with the tenfold increase in the number of India-born people living in Australia?

Tandoori chicken at the Tandoor Indian restaurant  in Belconnen.
Tandoori chicken at the Tandoor Indian restaurant in Belconnen. Photo: Richard Briggs

Bannerman didn't draw conclusions, but noted that Indian food is deeply embedded in Australian food culture, based in the English interest in spices from the 17th century. Canberra's first Indian was the Taj Mahal, upstairs in the Melbourne Building, started in 1974, and still there, it seems.

Bannerman recalls the Taj Mahal as the only restaurant on his circuit that had real character. Well, this is a pleasure that still awaits this reviewer, but at the Tandoor Indian, we're not feeling a great deal of character in the scene. The room is utilitarian. Those white cafe chairs you will recognise from many a neighbourhood restaurant, carpet, tablecloths, a few splashes and some wall hangings pretty much the only decoration other than some greenery. It's quiet this Sunday night. We're it at the moment, other than people coming in and out for takeaway.

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The menu says we can order mild, medium or hot, other than those dishes specified ''hot''. The menu tends a little to the repetitive, at least in its descriptions, where ''spices'' suffices as a description of all of them. And in the dishes we order, the gravies also feel rather undistinguished, and as a general comment, you don't find the thrill of fresh spices jumping out at you.

Anyway, we start with tandoori fish with New Zealand ling ($9.90), which comes as a few naked and gently spiced fillets of fish, pleasant enough and well cooked, but not tasting massively fresh and no obvious sign of the tandoor, but there's a line of enjoyable heat here with a touch of sourness in the sauce which could be tamarind. It's served on some lettuce, with a piece of tomato and another of cucumber.

Tandoori chicken at the Tandoor Indian in Belconnen.
Tandoori chicken at the Tandoor Indian in Belconnen. Photo: Richard Briggs

Another entree of chicken tikka, chunks of chicken marinated in yoghurt and spices ($9.90), is three big pieces of chicken breast, startlingly, even glaringly, red, and also served on iceberg lettuce. Both entrees could do with more contemporary plating - lettuce, tomato and cucumber we could do without.

In the mains, murg makhani - butter chicken with tomato and butter ($16.90) - has more of this red chicken, big chunks of it, but little subtlety or complexity in the sauce. Aloo lamb - lamb with potato and tomato and spices ($15.50) is a mildly spiced dish, with the taste of dry spices in the gravy. The prawn curry ($18.90) has half a dozen king prawns in a creamy coconut-milk sauce - it's OK but there's not a great deal to distinguish this or excite the senses, as we've found with some other dishes tonight.

The Tandoor Indian in Belconnen.
The Tandoor Indian in Belconnen. Photo: Richard Briggs

We're very happy, though, with the eggplant, baingan bhartta ($15.90), which is described as a whole eggplant roasted in a clay oven then cooked with tomato, onion and mild spices. There's quite a lot of interest and depth to this dish, and an honesty and originality in it that feels good, and that slippery, oily, soft texture of eggplants is hard to beat in the pleasure stakes.

We're also reasonably satisfied with the dahl - punj ratnai ($14.90), a combination of five Indian lentils, mild, but the different flavours of these pulses make for an unusual dish. If you thought lentils all tasted the same, this is a dish that will show you different.

And of course, there is no Indian meal complete without naan bread - plain naan ($2.80) and kulcha naan ($4.20) stuffed with homemade cheese, potatoes and onions, here a flakey-textured naan.

There's no joy in the wine list at Tandoor Indian, so it's a place to take your own, or drink beer, which we do, with a Kingfisher seeing us through the evening.

We leave without a sense that Tandoor Indian has distinguished itself as a cut above its peers - although it is our only visit for many years, and our experience is limited to the dishes we've mentioned. This is an Indian of that neighbourhood kind that meets a Friday-night need for takeaways or, in our case, a Sunday-night need for a quick meal after the movies. 

TANDOOR INDIAN

Address: 1 Chandler Street, Belconnen

Phone: 6253 1733

Website: n/a

Owner: Darshan Singh Thind

Chef: Jaspal Singh Thind

Hours: Lunch Monday to Friday noon-2pm, dinner seven days from 5.30pm

Licensed: Yes, plus BYO, corkage $3 a bottle or $1 a person

Vegetarian: Lots of options

To pay: Visa, American Express, Mastercard, Diner's Club, Eftpos

Wheelchair access: Stairs to front entrance, accessible back entrance

Seats: 65

Food 1 star

Wine list 1 star

Style 1 star

Value for money 2 stars

Service 2 stars

Score 12/20

Summary: A simple neighbourhood Indian eatery with a long history in Belconnen.11 something went wrong. 12 not so great tonight. 13 fine for a cheap and cheerful, not so for a place that aspires to the top end. 14 good. 15 really good. 16 great, when can we move in. 17-20 brilliant. The stars are a quick reference to the key highs or lows. They do not relate directly to the score out of 20.

Kirsten Lawson is Food and Wine editor.

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