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First-ever Indian restaurant downtown gets cooking

May 14, 2011

WOONSOCKET – Move over dynamites and meat pies. Make room for aloo palak, malai kofta and maybe even a little dal chana.
Those are just a few of the tasty treats you'll find on the menu at new Tandoori Restaurant at 114 Main St. Even if you can't pronounce the menu, you're going to love the exotic flavors that fill your colorful plate.
Amid a festive atmosphere filled with flags and a giant pair of scissors, Mayor Leo T. Fontaine cut a ceremonial ribbon as the Tandoori officially opened its doors Thursday – the first-ever Indian restaurant in the city. It's a joint venture of Sheikh Jamil of Woonsocket and his friend, Muhammad Rehman of Warwick, who hosted a small group of civic leaders and family members for an inaugural lunch.
Jamil and Rehman are both Pakistani immigrants who met in America many years ago. Jamil, who has owned the Liberty Market across the street for several years, says he and his wife, Fouzia, have long thought a restaurant specializing in Indian-style food would work on Main Street because there's nothing like it anywhere in the vicinity. He just hopes he's right.
“We're getting a lot of good response right now,” he said, reluctantly excusing himself from his first guests for a few moments. “We'll see what happens. We hope the community helps to let us serve them.”
City officials think he's onto something. As downtown's collective restaurant menu has grown increasingly eclectic, there's less and less room for newcomers to develop a sustainable niche, says Economic Development Director Matthew Wojcik. Because it's so unique, however, Tandoori is a great candidate for long-term survival.
“It's a different offering and that's what we're trying to build is a Main Street where people have choices,” said Wojick. “Entertainment is also a huge driver for the restaurant business in Woonsocket, and this is the kind of food people who go to the Stadium Theatre will be looking for.”
Indeed, the restaurant business is a growing and increasingly competitive industry in the city, representing annual trade of about $32 million a year, according to the state Department of Revenue. That's the ninth largest restaurant economy of any municipality in the state. That's bigger than North Providence or Johnston and nearly three quarters the size of Pawtucket, where the population is nearly twice as big.
Located in the shell of the former Main Street 2000, the Tandoori Restaurant has traded the dowdy digs of the old diner for a refreshing reincarnation with the atmosphere of a trendy bistro. Think Fox Point in Providence of Water Street in Warren. The building is part of the historic Honan Block, which has an upscale apartment upstairs once featured in a national magazine as the quintessential urban loft. It's owned by husband-and-wife artists Christopher and Hannah Garrison, former New Yorkers who fell in love with the building and decided to make it their new home about two years ago.
Hannah Garrison, a designer of jewelry and other products, says that after the demise of Main Street 2000, she and her husband were anxious to find a tenant that raised the bar for the restaurant business on Main Street. She and her husband would like to see the same restaurant synergies that are taking place in Market Square, home of the sushi-serving Vintage and the thriving River Falls – new restaurants, with hip, healthy fare on the menu that's pulling customers in from out of town.
So far, said Garrison, she likes what she sees, but it's been challenging living upstairs from the Tandoori.
“I get hungry up there just smelling everything,” she says. “I was in the backyard yesterday and I was supposed to be gardening and all I wanted to do was eat.”
Mayor Fontaine said he was excited to see a new business opening on Main Street, “especially in this building. The Honan Block is a great example of what's happening on Main Street. It's a great historic building that's been beautifully restored and it's attracting people from outside of the city to live here, and now eat here.”
Much of the food at the Tandoori is cooked using – what else? – a tandoor. That's a type of clay-lined, open-pit barbecue that used to prepare a wide variety of regional Indian dishes. Sometimes a tandoor is heated with charcoal, but the Tandoori's, like those of most commercial establishments, runs on natural gas. Either way, the clay lining gives meats, especially, a distinctive roasted flavor with a texture that's similar to American barbecue.
The tandoor was the source of the chicken tikka Jamil was serving up for his guests Thursday, along with an assortment of other delights, like chicken in a gently spiced, reddish curry sauce; somosas, a deep-fried pocket of pastry stuffed with a cumin-spiced mixture of mashed potato and peas; and rice pudding, flavored with an intriguing blend of rose water and cardamom.
“This is healthy food,” says Jamil, and, as the sign hanging over the new glass facade says, it's also “halal” – the sort of Muslim equivalent of kosher.
The restaurant features an assortment of chicken, lamb and other meat dishes, but also a surprisingly large number of vegetarian dishes – often the stars of the table in the cuisines of India and Pakistan, which are quite similar, the restaurateurs say. For the record, aloo palak is a kind of spinach and potato combo, often spiced with curry; malai kofta is a vegetarian meatball; and dal is the Indian word for lentil, another Indian staple.
A transplant from Boston, Jamil says he's had enough time in the city to observe that the locals can be quite thrifty when it come to dining out, so he's priced his menu for success. The most costly entree is $8.99, and many lunch items are much less expensive.
The food will be regionally authentic – not some Americanized version of Indian food. He and Rehman hired a chef, born and trained in India, who had been working in New York, to oversee the kitchen.
He and Rehman will spend much time working in the restaurant, but they're looking to hire up to eight individuals to help out in the kitchen, waiting tables or doing other restaurant chores. Jamil, who is often seen working alongside Fouzia at Liberty Market, says she will hold down the fort at the convenience store while he concentrates on building the restaurant business for a while.

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