Terrific tandoori

Clay Oven is an established oasis of Indian flavours

Like so many of the city’s best restaurants (seriously) Clay Oven is located in a cozy nondescript little strip mall. The Northeast restaurant is not much to look at either outside or in. However there are several Indian-themed prints on its blue walls. The best is Royal Cheetah in which two men admire a tame cheetah in a verdant valley. This artwork provides a suitable metaphor. Established more than 10 years ago the restaurant may not look the part but it is a culinary oasis for its well-established clientele.

My guest and I arrive for our 7 p.m. reservation and the place is full. Servers are efficiently running food to a dozen tables taking time to greet and chat with regulars who appear to be in the majority tonight. This is a good sign.

A serving of papadum awaits us at our table. The thin crispy cracker-like bread with its satisfying crunch is presented with light mango-chutney dipping sauce. The complimentary dish occupies us while we read the menu.

Clay Oven specializes in Punjabi cuisine but offers other regional Indian dishes as well. As its name suggests some of these are cooked in its open clay oven (tandoor). We start our meal with an order of vegetable pakoras ($4.95). True to its boast the restaurant’s portioning is generous. Our platter of pakoras is a biggie and they arrive hot and crispy on the outside. The golden orange dough fritters contain onion and spinach which gives them a handsome loosely crosshatched appearance. Two dipping sauces accompany — a sweet and slightly spicy tamarind sauce is twinned with a mint sauce containing diced onion. Taste-wise the pretty pakoras are standard-issue. The sauces are the stars of this dish. Both have subtle contrasting flavours. The tamarind foreshadows the spiciness of the meal to come and the cool mint is especially good with the heat of the fritters.

The clay oven-cooked tandoori chicken is served on a sizzling platter atop a bed of diced cabbage and carrots. It’s a large helping of deep velvety red meat that’s cooked quite darkly in spots. Tandoori chicken can be dry. The remedy provided here is a bowl of butter chicken sauce that contains shredded chicken bits. The seasoned outside of the chicken is so succulent and the lightly charred bits are beautiful. The butter chicken sauce rehydrates the inner meat without hiding the smooth tandoori taste. Every bite is bursting with flavour.

The lamb gosht ($11.95) and saag paneer ($10.95) are served in metal bowls. First oh my gosht! Mouth-melting chunks of beef sirloin are hidden in a brown-orange sauce that’s made of onions tomatoes and seasoned yoghurt. The sauce is rich but rather than masking the steak it enhances its stewed beefiness.

Similarly the saag paneer sauce with its mix of sautéed spinach garlic ginger onions and tomato accentuates the subtle flavour of the Indian-style cheese cubes within. Firm white and slightly salty they also look great when scooped onto the plate with a generous amount of spinach-green sauce. Again both the lamb gosht and saag paneer are smashingly successful exercises in balance: spoonful after glorious spoonful of harmony.

We’d ordered our food with a medium spice level which was a good idea. I’d say the meal was closer to mild but it’s nice to enjoy the tastes without fighting the heat. We’re not suffering just enjoying the laid-back warmth and a showcase of Indian flavours.

After such a big and multi-flavoured meal gulab jamun ($3.95) is a perfect dessert: small and sweet. This palette cleanser is a simple dish of two dense cake-like balls afloat in hot thin syrup.

With a really big take-home bag in hand we leave completely satisfied. Clay Oven serves high-calibre food and lots of it. Happily its prices are reasonable. Its established regular clientele is proof of these positives and makes Friday and Saturday reservations both for the lunch buffet ($11.95 Monday to Friday) and for evening meals a must.