Chef Ruchit Raval holds a tray of authentic Indian dishes Jan. 31 at the new Tandoori Oven, Columbus’ first Indian restaurant. Pankaj Patel opened the eatery Feb. 1 at the Columbus Inn and Suites at 506 Highway 45 N. Photo by: Micah Green/Dispatch Staff
February 5, 2014 10:56:05 AM
It's our good luck the wide, wonderful world of food has so many fascinating cuisines to explore. Columbus just got one more. With the official opening of its first Indian menu restaurant Feb. 1, the city moved closer to truly having something for every palate.
Tandoori Oven, located in the Columbus Inn and Suites at 506 Highway 45 N., hopes to introduce the community to foods it may have never sampled before -- like papdi chaat, mirchi pakora or channa masala. To foods that boast a flavorful fusion of tantalizing spices like annatto seeds, saffron, ginger, coriander powder, garam masala and many more. To foods representing one of the most diverse, sophisticated cuisines on the planet. That is the calling for hotelier and restaurateur Pankaj Patel, Chef Ruchit Raval and the Tandoori Oven staff.
Patel has pursued this goal for more than a year. Born in Africa, he acquired a liberal education in India before living in London for many years. Family and business brought Patel to America in 2000. He is president of Shrinathji Inc., a corporation that operates the Columbus Inn and Suites and other entities. His quiet pleasure in finally being able to bring authentic Indian food to the pages of Columbus' dining guides is apparent.
"We are very happy to open," he said Jan. 31, walking down an extensive and aromatic buffet. He pointed out various dishes and said, "We want to introduce Indian cuisine to the people." Laminated cards provided the name of the foods and a brief description. "Some people are scared of it," smiled Patel, "so we want to let people know what it is."
On the day before the restaurant's public opening, Patel and Chef Raval hospitably explained the signature Indian cooking method at the heart of the menu.
The tandoor oven is a large, cylindral clay pot used for traditional Indian open-fire preparation of breads and marinated meats and vegetables.
Fire in the bottom of the oven can heat its walls and the air inside to upwards of 900 degrees F. Flatbreads, like naan, can be slapped against the sides, where they adhere to the heated surface, cook quickly and are peeled off when done. Marinated meats are usually cooked on long skewers lowered into the oven where they are grilled to perfection.
Raval demonstrated how tandoori chicken is prepared in the tandoor. The roasted delicacy originated in the Punjab region; it's a very popular dish in Indian restaurants. The vibrant color of this "king of kebabs" comes from ground spices including Indian red chilli. It makes for a beautiful presentation.
Foods of India vary by region. There are 28 states and seven Union territories, each with its unique traditions and dishes. But the common thread is the use of a wide variety of fresh spices for incomparable flavor and aroma. Many of the spices, and some of the grains, used at Tandoori Oven have to be purchased in Atlanta, where Patel normally is several days each week. Others come directly from India.
Raval combines the expertise he acquired in culinary school with skills he absorbed at his father's catering business in India. That knowledge is especially important when it comes to complex blends of spices.
"You're going to get all the flavors with Indian food; you get to enjoy all of it," he said.
"And all the food is cooked here," added Patel. "Nothing is pre-cooked."
Because tastebuds can vary as much as the regional foods of India, the dishes on the restaurant's buffet generally hit a "happy medium." "We can increase the spices in any dish, by request; just let us know," said Patel, who actively encourages feedback from diners.
"We don't want to give you what we like; we want to do what you like," confirmed Raval.
Spices were just right for Grady Scott and his daughter Claire Scott, who were finishing a late lunch Jan. 31.
"We love Indian food. We were going to drive to Tuscaloosa for it," said Scott, who is pastor of the Church of Christ in Caledonia. "We're so glad they're opening."
The sentiment was shared by Sgt. Bill Smith of the Columbus Police Department, who stopped in for a moment to assure himself the Indian restaurant was actually going to be a reality. He used to drive an hour or more for that cuisine and couldn't be more pleased to have it available at home.
There was a palpable air of anticipation for the restaurant's launch among those who worked hard to reach this point. There was also an atmosphere of teamwork.
It was summed up well by Jayant Patel, who is assisting with the opening. He stood in the kitchen, in the warming glow of the tandoor. "We're not family," he grinned, "but we work like a family,"
Tandoori Oven is open with an all-you-can-eat lunch buffet from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. A la carte dining hours are 5-9 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 5-10 p.m. Friday through Sunday. For more information, visit tandoorioven.co or call 662-328-5202. Starkville diners can also take advantage of the new Indian restaurant in that community. Bombay Spice Kitchen opened in January at 108 Dr. Martin Luther Jr. Drive West in Starkville.
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.