The name originally comes from the Babylonian word for fire, but similar Turkish, Hebrew, Arabic, and Persian words have been used for millennia to designate a beehive-shaped clay oven used to cook bread and meat. Surprisingly, the tandoor wasn’t introduced into India until 1948, when an Old Delhi hot spot called Moti Mahal began brandishing one for an admiring crowd of politicians and celebrities. The restaurant is still there, and the trend it started has snowballed in India, and in the United States as well.
As in any new culinary art form, there’s plenty of room for innovation, and at the head of the local vanguard stands Tandoori Hut. It adjoins a Hindu temple called Shree Krishna Mandir, whose blue neon sign—Krishna’s color—casts a cold light over the restaurant’s facade and the paved-over park across the street. Pleasantly, there’s no decor to speak of, apart from a wall-mounted thermometer that you should take as a warning. The standard red tandoori chicken is excellent (half, $6), with a coating grittier and spicier than usual, and a moistness that’s especially rare. The Hut also offers a yellow version (whole chicken only, $10), coated with lemon pickle before it’s cooked—resulting in a unique acidic tang and a jaundiced appearance that rivals the red for shock value. A shake of the salty house masala adds the finishing touch.
The section called Tandoori Specialties features the usual items, and plenty of freaky ones, too. The fresh cheese of India is cheerfully skewered and toasted to make paneer kebab, and you can also get several variations on the chopped-meat cylinders called sheekh kebab. Chicken tikka is given a reprieve from its usual boring incarnation as boneless overcooked breast McNuggets. Of four flavors, I especially dig the haryali tikka ($7.50), thickly coated with a mint chutney that adds bright green to the restaurant’s palette of arresting colors. If you prefer to stick with red, there’s a wonderful tandoori fish ($12) that comes wrapped in foil like a Christmas present. Recently, it was a huge pink snapper—charred, flaky, and smoky tasting. We picked the bones clean.
In exuberant pursuit of the tandoori lifestyle, the Hut doesn’t content itself with merely cooking great meat, fish, and poultry in the clay oven. It goes on to use these already roasted materials as a point of departure for fanciful culinary excursions in Tawa Specialties. In Himachal Pradesh, there’s a hilltop shrine to the Hindu goddess of fire honeycombed with sources of combustible gas that explode when ignited by devotees. Named after that shrine, chicken jawalamukhi ($8.50) is a sputtering mountain of poultry fragments in a sweetish red sauce flecked with coriander leaves, a delicious concoction that’s spicy as hell. Less architecturally prepossessing is shikari murgi (“hunter’s pride chicken with bones”), a stir-fry of the same fragments with broccoli and onions in a sweet-and-sour sauce that probably emulates a popular dish at the local Chinese carry-out. The best of these creations is chicken katakat, a julienne of chicken strips—dark and light, with plenty of taste and sinew—bathed in a light lemon sauce and heaped with cilantro and shredded ginger. It is remarkably delicious, though I had to reassure a timid friend that it didn’t contain any cat.
When the waiter asks how hot you want your food, the best reply is “medium hot.” One day we made the mistake of petulantly answering, “Just as hot as you eat it, sir,” and found it more searing than African, Mexican, and Thai food combined. Though we finished our spread, it was slow going, and our grunts of pain and pleasure were punctuated with deep draughts of water.