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Dining Out

A fresh perspective

Indian restaurant serves up coastal specialties

Shrimp tikka are curled in a row after marinating in coconut, yogurt, and curry leaf. Shrimp tikka are curled in a row after marinating in coconut, yogurt, and curry leaf. (Photos by Wiqan ang for the boston globe)
By Devra First
Globe Staff / December 22, 2008
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You won't have the chicken tikka masala. You won't have the saag paneer. They're not on the menu. You won't even have the samosas, unless you come at tea time on the weekends, when they're properly served as snacks rather than appetizers.

Instead you'll have the plantain gule (plantain dumplings in onion sauce), Andhra chapala (fish with tomato and tamarind), or Karnataka tiger prawn curry. And you will like it.

Tamarind Bay Coastal Indian Kitchen is not the place to come for your old favorites, dishes that, delicious though they may be, are a dime a dozen in the Boston area. Chef Wali Ahmad is inspired by the food of India's coastal regions, states such as Kerala, Goa, Andhra Pradesh, and Karnataka (you may have been there by phone; Bangalore, the capital, is home to many of the folks who save us from computer inadequacy). And coastal cuisine means lots of fish and seafood.

The Karnataka tiger prawn curry features just-cooked-through crustaceans in a bath of mild, creamy coconut and yogurt. It's subtle and pure white, quite unlike what you may think of as curry - a catchall term if ever there was one. Mangalorean lobster features a split tail with meat removed, coated in a sauce of coconut, garam masala, and mustard seeds, and piled back into the tail; the head half of the lobster is propped vertically on the plate behind it, as if keeping watch. Andhra chapala is a whole bronzino covered in a yellow-brown paste flavored with star anise, cinnamon, cardamom, and more.

These dishes aren't fiery; they're just highly flavorful, replete with spices. A pink-orange chutney made from ginger, tomato, and almonds lends a slight kick. Many dishes on the menu come with rice and daal; the daal is the heavenly black lentil dish you may have tasted at the original Tamarind Bay in Harvard Square. These lentils, rich and nearly smoky, are cooked overnight in spices; they're also available as a vegetarian entree. Anyone who even vaguely admires lentils will swoon over them.

You will find tikka here, in the form of chicken and shrimp starters. The shrimp tikka are curled in a row, tender and sweet after marinating in coconut, yogurt, and curry leaf. An appetizer of cabbage chitwa is like an Indian latke, with vegetable shreds instead of potato. The cabbage patties are fried and served on shredded cabbage, the antithesis of the Cabbage Soup Diet (but much tastier). Tulsi malai lamb is highly spiced kebabs marinated with tulsi (holy basil) and served with more of that ginger sauce. They stand vertically, like Lincoln Logs at attention, a pappadum-like crisp perched among them jauntily. (The pappadums, by the way, are excellent here - a complimentary basket of freshly fried crisps that taste nearly exactly like Munchos. Parathas are good too, flaky and layered.)

There are plenty of options for those who don't like seafood. Matki dum murgh is a warming dish of chicken in a thick sauce perfumed with cardamom and mace. An even better saucy dish is the plantain gule, plantain dumplings in an onion sauce you may have had before on chicken. The dumplings are reminiscent of meatless kibbeh in taste and texture.

If that onion sauce tastes better than you remember from past renditions, it's likely because Ahmad cooks each dish fresh to order, rather than preparing a batch of sauce and using it to make many dishes over the course of a day. (He's likely the closest we have to an Indian celebrity chef in Boston, having worked on the television cooking show "Khana Khazana.") This is particularly evident on a slow weeknight, when everything comes to the table steaming. On a busy weekend, the Andhra chapala we loved on a Tuesday isn't as hot, and a skin is beginning to form on the sauce.

Not every dish quite manages to evoke the coastal breezes. Masala crab cakes promise an intriguing fusion of US and India, but they barely taste of crab. Sweetish spices dominate; the brown domes smell something like cookie dough. A soup of plum tomatoes, curry leaf, and tamarind is too tart - the tamarind takes it in that direction, then hands off the baton to lemon juice. Still, when the kitchen is on, it is really on. (Service can be strange, however, either far too attentive or somewhat out of it.)

Dessert is a different spin, too. You've got your kulfi, as usual, but this one is flavored with tomato. The ice cream is cut into rounds, laid out in a row, with shards of caramelized sugar placed between them. You may like it (I did), you may not (no one I was with seemed to), but you likely haven't had it before. And the dish called "sweet potato cake" is missing an article: It's really sweet potato and cake, with "cake" used loosely. A piece of roasted sweet potato is topped with a dark brown, chewy, macaroon-like confection. For the more traditional-minded, one night there was a lovely, straight-up rendition of kheer, a rice pudding.

Tamarind Bay Coastal has a full liquor license, which results in drinks with names such as "Kolkatta Cosmo" (Absolut Citron, pomegranate and grapefruit juices, Cointreau, and fresh ginger and mint) and "Malabar Mojito" (gin, cucumber, red pepper, and cilantro) that are nominally Indian in flavor. Owners BS Ajai Kumar and Vikas Kapoor stick with the coastal theme for the decor, with blue banquettes and cool blue lights behind the bar; statues and wall hangings depict scenes from Indian folklore.

It's atmospheric, if not quite enough to make us feel like we're there. At its best, the food takes care of that - it's fresh, both in its ingredients and to our palates. It offers a different spin on a cuisine of subtlety and regional specificity, both of which are often lost in translation.

Devra First can be reached at dfirst@globe.com.

TAMARIND BAY COASTAL INDIAN KITCHEN

1665 Beacon St., Brookline. 617-277-1752. www.tamarind-bay.com.

All major credit cards accepted. Wheelchair accessible.

Prices Appetizers $4.95-$12.95. Entrees $12.95-$23.95. Dessert $5-$6.

Hours Mon-Fri: lunch noon-2:30 p.m., dinner 5-10 p.m. Sat-Sun lunch noon-2:30 p.m., high tea 3-5 p.m., dinner 5-10:30 p.m.

Noise level Conversation easy.

May we suggest

Cabbage chitwa, tulsi malai lamb, plantain gule, Mangalorean lobster, Andhra chapala, Karnataka tiger prawn curry, lalla musa daal.

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