Posted on August 24, 2011
by Joe Ricchio
“We are keeping traditions alive while representing a new generation of Indian cooks.”
Chef and co-owner Rajesh “Raj” Mandekar reveals his approach to changing the way most people view Indian cuisine.
“We do not limit the menu to one regions’ style of cuisine, such as Kashmir, Bengal, or Bombay, but rather attempt to encompass the country as a whole.”
Tulsi closed the doors of its original location on July 24, 2011, and will re-open in late August in a new locale (about a block away from the old one) in the historic Kittery building formerly occupied by an Italian market, Enoteca Italiano.
I had the privilege of dining at Tulsi on their final night of operation in their original spot. As with anything one has grown to love, witnessing the restaurant’s transition from old to new has been a slightly bittersweet experience.
My dining companion and I are greeted by co-owner Janet Howe, who explains that the new setup will feature a much larger dining room and the addition of a newly built, thirty foot L-shaped bar.
Due to it being their last night in operation for at least a month, it is our job to help clear out the wine and beer inventory to lighten the load for the upcoming move. I lead off with the Indian Brown Ale, a rich and malty brew with flavors redolent of molasses, chocolate, and raisins from Dogfish Head Brewery in Delaware.
To start, we are presented with poppadum chips and two dipping sauces. One is a spicy blend of mint and green chilies, and the other is a thicker, sweet tamarind. While looking the menu over, our server, Eric, informs us that, for obvious reasons, they may be out of a few items. To keep things simple we decide to put the appetizer selections in Mandekar’s hands, and go on to order several entrees and two baskets of naan bread.
Our first course is Boti Kabob, tender cubes of lamb marinated in yogurt and spices and cooked in the Tandoor oven. Following shortly after, Eric brings out crispy, Indian-style cod cakes with fresh fennel and potato. A curried remoualde made with house mayo, dried fennel, cilantro, and turmeric, is served alongside the cakes, and after taking one bite, this concoction is simply referred to as “magic” for the rest of the meal.
The cod cakes are a perfect of example of Mandekar’s fondness for taking traditional Maine ingredients and fusing them with Indian spices. Our third course is vibrantly colored, pan-fried calamari, tossed with a cilantro and green chili paste and served over greens. As with all of the food at Tulsi, there is no shyness when it comes to the natural heat and flavor of the chilies in this dish, so another beer is in order.
For my second drink I opt for a Saison from Brasserie Dupont in Belgium, a classic farmhouse ale with bright, lemony flavors with just a hint of coriander. The Saison pairs so well with what has been served thus far, I decide not to deviate for the duration of the meal.
The first naan bread we try is the Peshawari, a sweet and savory naan filled with coconut, dried fruit, and nuts. Though it sounds like dessert, its sweetness is actually perfectly balanced, and an amazing accompaniment to our rich, spicy entrees. Keema naan, stuffed with minced, spiced Tandoori lamb, reminds me more of thin crust pizza than bread, in a very, very good way.
The first of our entrees to arrive is the Zaffrani Jhinga, tiger shrimp sauteed with garlic and simmered in curried saffron cream. It is served with a pureed cashew sauce alongside mint rice, with a demi-salad of iceberg lettuce and pomegranate seeds. If I were given a choice of one last meal to enjoy before I die, it is quite possible that this would be it.
The rest of our selections make their way to the table, including Pork Vindaloo, a fiery Goan curry that is actually Portugese in origin. Mandekar’s version is made with liberal amounts of chilies, ginger, and malt vinegar. Aloo Gobhi Matar, sautéed cauliflower, potato, peas, and onion with a roasted coriander sauce adds a delightful vegetarian flare to the meal and though I admit to hating English peas, their presence in this dish does not prevent me from consuming copious amounts of it.
Tikka Masala, pieces of chicken marinated in spiced yogurt and grilled in the Tandoor oven, arrives enveloped with a creamy tomato and cashew sauce, flecked with scallions. This is probably the most well-known Indian dish in the United States, but Mandekar’s version is much more delicate and complex than any I have ever tasted.
Though the four of us are painfully full at this point in the meal, we are presented with one last savory dish: a whole Ecuadorian Sea Bass, dredged in flour and semolina before being pan-fried. It is boldly seasoned with cumin, coriander, and salt, representing the simple style of the food that Mandekar’s grandmother cooked while he was growing up in Mumbai, India. After we are through with it, there is barely any trace of meat left on the bones.
Mango lassi, an Indian fruit smoothie, is not to be missed under any circumstances whatsoever, whether consumed with a meal or as dessert. I have enjoyed many incarnations of this beverage but none compare to Tulsi’s offering.
Though the old, converted post office that has been Tulsi’s home for many years will be missed, exciting new things are on the horizon for Mandekar and Howe. The new location is just the beginning.
20 Walker St. | Kittery | 207.451.9511 | tulsiindianrestaurant.com