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Tandoori Tummy

I was home alone, meditating in the buff after a particularly sweaty yoga workout, when he appeared to me in a blaze of glory: the four-armed, elephant-headed Hindu deity Lord Ganesha, that potbellied avatar of wisdom, success and prosperity, revered on the Subcontinent and elsewhere as "the remover of obstacles."...
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I was home alone, meditating in the buff after a particularly sweaty yoga workout, when he appeared to me in a blaze of glory: the four-armed, elephant-headed Hindu deity Lord Ganesha, that potbellied avatar of wisdom, success and prosperity, revered on the Subcontinent and elsewhere as "the remover of obstacles." I bowed low and hailed his mighty name, after which he sat in the lotus position before me, the hot air from his trunk threatening to blow me away.

"Sweet Knights of Columbus!" I exclaimed. "Your breath is unusually fragrant, sir. May I be so bold as to ask where you got your grub on last?"

"Your nose will answer for me," he replied cryptically. "Follow it, and it will lead you to a sumptuous Indian spread. And for Shiva's sake, put some clothes on, man! You're grossing me out."

With this, the pachydermous divinity disappeared in a puff of purple smoke, leaving me blessed with superhuman olfactory powers. These led me directly to the doorstep of the month-old Tandoori Times, just next to the nightclub Anderson's Fifth Estate in Scottsdale. As the name implies, Tandoori Times specializes in all manner of comestibles prepared in one of its two traditional tandoori clay ovens, those fiery pot-like kilns used in India since the time of the Mogul emperors. Meat, fish, fowl and veggies are roasted on skewers lowered into the tandoors after being marinated in a mix of spices and yogurt. And Indian flatbread, or naan, is baked by slapping the dough onto the ovens' circular walls. What results is a unique intensity of flavor unparalleled in Occidental cooking.

Other Indian establishments in the Valley utilize tandoors, but what makes TT special is the talent of those in charge. Owner Sunny Chopra and his staff cut their restaurant chops in the Bay Area, and Chopra's Nepalese chef Nama Pokhrel does not cut any culinary corners. Each curry is different from the last, borne of a complex bounty of spices blended together by Pokhrel's expert hand. Praise be to Sri Ganesha for leading me to these able vendors of Indian vittles!

A statue of Ganesha greets you upon entry to the modern-styled eatery with its light touches of South Asian ambiance, usually in the form of storybook paintings depicting the high life of the Mogul court. A few leather booths, teak chairs around clothless tables, an open kitchen in the back, and a large patio off to the side are the primary elements. The walls are either saffron, eggshell white or wine. House music, the kind DJ Senbad might spin over at Lemon Drop, is in the air, as well as the alluring aromas of cardamom, cumin and cinnamon.

I was surprised there were no Indian snacks, such as pappadam or samosas, offered as precursors to the entrees, though three traditional chutneys are brought to you at first as at many Indian places, the vibrant green mint chutney being the one I dip into the most. Nor is there any iced tea available, which is strange for any restaurant these days. Also, the place has no liquor license yet.

Meanwhile, take advantage of the free, hot Indian-style tea, a little milky and very-very cardamommy. The mango lassi isn't gratis, but this sweet, yogurty libation does make a fine bride when wedded to the menu's heavily seasoned main courses.

My ardor for lamb is so passionate that I can't count sheep at night without salivating, so some of the first items I ingested at TT were the tandoori lamb chops, the lamb biryani and the lamb boti masala. I adored all, particularly those reddish, barbecued chops, heavy with cumin, and the biryani, with basmati rice turned brownish-yellow from having been cooked with lamb chunks, peas, bell peppers, raisins and slivers of almonds -- fit for an Indian potentate of yore. The boti masala in a light, creamy curry flavored with fenugreek was a tribute to how intricate the play of spices can be on the tongue. That is, when you've got Nama Pokhrel as your chef.

Even more than the lamb, I reveled in the seafood curries, the prawn tikka masala and the fish masala. In the latter case, the gill-bearer was a tender mahi-mahi fillet steeped in a tomato-based gravy with ginger, garlic and onion. As for the prawn dish, when you think of tikka masala, you typically picture the très mild vermilion sauce invented in England by some Bangladeshi chef, according to legend, to appease the palate of a Limey client who wanted gravy with his chicken tikka. But this fenugreeked masala is deep brown with brownish flecks of cloves, and prances around in your gob like a three-ring circus. It was a perfect match to the fresh, firm shrimps, and demonstrated the endless variety of masalas, a term that broadly refers to blends of different spices.

The palak aloo and bengun bhartha serve as wonderful sides, palak aloo being a rich, moist combination of chopped, warm spinach and potatoes, and bengun bhartha being a sweet, mushy green paste of tandoori roasted eggplant and tomatoes. The naan -- whether garlic, plain, or stuffed with cottage cheese, spiced meats or potatoes -- is buttery, golden-brown, crispy and superb. TT crafts cucumbery wraps with these that seem aimed at the lunch crowd. A little more prosaic than the rest of the menu, but tasty nonetheless.

Dessert-wise, there's kheer, a sweet ground rice porridge with nuts and raisins, or gulab jamun, those deep-fried milk dumplings drowned in syrup that my ol' Nepalese pal Mr. Prem humorously refers to as "camel balls." I'd like to see Tandoori Times switch things up a bit when it comes to the sweets, and maybe do some pistachio or carrot halwas, of which I'm so fond. Otherwise, TT is producing some of the most intriguing Indian cuisine in greater Phoenix. And for that alone, I'm sure Lord Ganesha, whom I'll thank for the magic tip next time I conjure him up, is quite proud.

Foodie alert: That classic old-school Chinese chow palace Autumn Court was gutted by a kitchen fire recently, forcing proprietor Raymond Tang to relocate to Flat Iron Grill's old digs at 3752 East Indian School Road. Phone: 602-234-0512. It features the same reliable neighborhood Chinese fare, but in environs more reminiscent of a Swiss chalet than AC's Central Avenue homage to Dashiell Hammett's San Fran. The old locale should reopen in 10 months or so, according to Tang, who plans to keep both spots going once the ravages of the fire have been repaired.

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