Before you order at an Indian restaurant you’re not familiar with, you need to get an accurate read on spice and heat. No one wants flavorless fare, but one person’s medium-spicy is another’s incendiary — and vice versa. While servers can make recommendations, first-hand experience is how most patrons come to know a chef’s set-point for spiciness. At Punjabi Tadka, the second northern Indian restaurant in Arlington Center, many of the dishes are good, even if not full of the spicy heat we crave.
Punjabi Tadka, open since August in the space Japanese fusion restaurant Midami used to be, is the fourth restaurant owned by Anil Kumar and Ajay Sachar. Desi Dhaba and India Castle, both in Cambridge, and Kabab Corner in Medford, are their other establishments. Punjabi’s extensive menu offers traditional dishes from India’s Northwestern state, prepared by chef Surinder Sethi. In addition to the dinner crowd, the new spot is reaching out to lunch customers with vegetarian and non-vegetarian wraps (a naanwich, anyone?) and offers free delivery throughout the neighborhood. The word tadka refers to frying aromatic spices or chilies in oil, Kumar explains. That description, along with the chili pepper in the restaurant’s logo, makes us look forward to bright, complex flavors.
Seated in the cheerful dining area with mustard-colored walls, we start with complimentary pappadums, the whisper-thin chickpea flour crisps, accompanied by a smooth tamarind dipping sauce and two fresh chutneys — one with mint, another with chopped pickled onions.
Dal soup ($3.95), is a fragrant and velvety bowl of yellow lentils. The starter vegetarian platter ($9.95) includes samosas, deep-fried flour wrappers stuffed with soft cooked potatoes and peas (another version comes with lamb). Cheese pakora fritters are rubbery and bland but the saag tikki, falafel-like fritters with spinach, are nicely textured and gently spiced.
A dining companion, departing from our all-vegetarian intent for the meal, orders goat rogan josh ($16.95). The tender meat is cooked in a thick brown sauce enriched with saffron and yogurt. Snow-white basmati rice offers an excellent foil. Bhindi aloo ($14.95), a tasty braise of okra, potato, onion, and tomato, is well made. Both goat and okra dishes, ordered medium-spicy, arrive quite mild.
On another night, we start with aloo chat ($5.95), a dish that has a quality of yogurt-dressed potato salad. Baingan bhartha ($12.95), roasted smashed eggplant braised with ginger, onion, and turmeric, is delicious with the long-grain rice. Dal makhani ($11.95), long-simmered black lentils, are satisfyingly hearty. Navrattan korma ($12.95), vegetables in cream sauce, disappoints us, and makes us wonder if the vegetables are from a frozen mix.
Shahi paneer ($13.95), fresh white cheese in creamy tomato sauce, gets mixed reviews. A dining companion, who teaches Indian cooking, likes the fresh springiness of the cheese, but the vivid red sauce is too sweet. In the small bread basket ($6.95) are two kinds of naan from the tandoor oven, one stuffed with potato, the other studded with garlic and cilantro. They are hot, puffy, and excellent.
When someone in our party, who has been quiet throughout the meal, asks the server what the kitchen has to offer for more heat in the food, she brings out a ramekin of thin red sauce. It turns out to be Tabasco. We request something hotter. She brings out slices of raw jalapeno, dusted with salt and white pepper. Oddly enough, even these chilies pack little heat.
So now we know. When it comes to heat, Punjabi Tadka aims for the mild middle, unless you request otherwise. And even when you do, you’re not going to be knocked out. But you’ll find a variety of satisfying dishes.