I like to think of myself as an open-minded foodie, able to take any cuisine on its own terms. But I must confess that when I'm eating in an Indian restaurant -- one that isn't strictly vegetarian, that is -- I think of the vegetarian dishes as a la carte sides. Never mind that these dishes can be rewarding in their own right, or that many people make an entire meal of them. My palate craves the carnivorous rewards of lamb curry and tandoori mixed grill.
Imagine my surprise, then, as I think back on all the dishes I've had at Kandas -- more than a dozen of them, including a few of my meaty favorites -- and realize that it's a vegetarian dish that stands out. It wasn't an elaborate or particularly exotic dish, either, but saag paneer -- the familiar spinach-and-cheese staple found on countless Indian menus and lunch buffets. This was the creamiest, most fragrant saag paneer I've ever tasted, so unlike the others as to be an altogether different dish.
That's not to say that saag paneer is the only reason to visit Kandas, a modest-looking eatery that opened in September at Morrisville Station. Or, for that matter, that the restaurant's charms are limited to its vegetarian offering. Shrimp pepper fry, an appetizer that fairly radiates the warmth of toasted red chiles and a pantry full of spices, is every bit as delightful a way to start your meal as a tomato soup that's smooth as silk and subtly redolent of garlic and ginger. Chile pakoras, which feature strips of banana pepper in a chickpea flour batter, aren't as distinctive as some I've had, and they can vary from mild to fiery, depending on the heat level of the pepper. But chicken 65, which serves up deep-fried nuggets in a chile-reddened batter, is sure to get your taste buds humming.
If you like the chicken 65, then the similarly spiced entree, chicken Chettinad, is sure to float your boat. The cardamom-perfumed sauce that enrobes the nuggets of breast meat in this dish packs a wallop, but the kitchen is happy to tone down the heat for timid palates. Fish moilee, a Southern Indian dish starring moist boneless chunks of tilapia in a coconut curry punctuated with ginger and green chiles, is a keeper, too. And Kandas' classic rendition of lamb curry punched all the right buttons the night I craved the dish.
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I got my tandoori mixed grill fix on another night, in the form of a sizzling platter heaped with a generous assortment of tandoor-roasted meat, fish and fowl. Salmon tikka and shrimp were the surprising highlights of the presentation, along with succulent minced lamb sheesh kebabs. Bone-in tandoori chicken was on the money as well, though the boneless chicken tikka and chicken malai kebab were cooked a shade past the juicy ideal. The only out-and-out disappointments were goat and lamb kebabs, both of which were gamy and dry.
Disappointments with the level of service are infrequent, too, and generally the result of a wait staff that can get spread too thin on a busy night. Should you encounter a glitch -- a mango lassi that doesn't get to your table until it's lukewarm, say -- you can rest assured that your earnest but eager-to-please waiter will be happy to make amends.
I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised at the quality of Kandas' vegetarian fare, given that owner Veerapandian Kalimuthu also owns Tower, a popular all-vegetarian eatery nearby. Based on my experience, I'd say that the new restaurant is different enough from the old one that it's sure to be a welcome addition to the local dining scene. Admittedly, my experience has so far only scratched the surface of a menu that offers scores of vegetarian and nonvegetarian dishes to explore. I'm sure of one thing, however. Whatever mood I'm in next time I go to Kandas, I'm definitely ordering the saag paneer.