FALAFEL AND TENUR The Middle Eastern goodness of Tandoor.
As you may remember, we went to war with Iraq in the name of freedom. So it is appropriate that Tandoor Bread Bakery, the terrific Iraqi bakery and restaurant, is tucked behind a Forest Avenue shop that sells bongs and body jewelry. Those wares are pretty representative of our typical American uses of freedom — escapism and self-adornment. But around the corner at Tandoor, they have different habits: freedom as an opportunity for cheerful dedication to work at something you love. You see it on the wall, in photos of the proprietors as proud parents at their son's graduation. But more importantly, you hear it and smell it in the air.
Each time baker Audai Naser starts a new round of the house's specialty flatbread, called tenur, it makes a distinctive pattern of noise in an unchanging rhythm: clang clang, pat pat pat pat pat, plop. That last sound is the freshly flattened round of dough smacking against the hot wall of the tandoor oven — a sort of big clay pot set into the stove top. He really cranks them out — for retail sale, for other businesses, and for the dishes on Tandoor's own menu. Naser rarely stops, tossing round after round on a table to cool. While he works he banters with Arabic-speaking regulars. If it's slow and you are waiting for your order, he will hand you one right from the oven, to savor while you wait. "One for you!" he says.
It is terrific bread — soft but chewy with a paper-thin layer of crispness, airy yet substantial. It forms the centerpiece of a menu that focuses on doing a few things very well. One is shawarma. Portland suffered from a lack of shawarma for so long that many people believed that vertical rotation of meat was illegal here in Maine. Maybe this is one of the regulations LePage has rolled back? The beef version is a simple classic — the bread barely smeared with tahini and hummus, and stuffed with big chunks of tender meat, dark lettuce, tomato, and onion. The chicken shawarma has more complex seasonings, with the onions diced more finely, plenty of garlic, and a hint of something yogurty. A kabob sandwich fills the bread with dark patties of generously herbed ground beef.
Tandoor's falafel can be ordered as a meal that comes with a big serving of foule (as it appears on the Tandoor menu; it is often spelled "ful") — a traditional dish in which fava beans and onions roast overnight in clay bowls over a dying fire. The result is a mushy delight — the long simmer brings out the deep earthiness of the beans, offset by the sweetness of the onion. Scooped up in the tenur bread, the foule might be the best thing at Tandoor. The falafel itself is super crunchy, with that distinct sharp flavor and almost metallic aroma of seared cumin and coriander. The chickpea innards are soft and green with herbs. The meal comes with a mango-based sauce called amba, which is more sour and bitter than sweet. It's unusual and pretty terrific — like the fruit had been pickled in the style of Japanese umeboshi plums.
: Restaurant Reviews
, food, TANDOOR, bread