There is a 1955 model prefabricated diner at the corner of Chapel and Howe Street: the 445th produced by the long-gone Mountain View Diners Company of New Jersey. It sits wide and low, flush with rounded corners and red and green accents, and it bears the shining exterior of Art Deco chrome. I couldn’t help but notice the place after turning around the corner out from Pierson and Yale’s Gothic and Georgian walls. The building at 1226 Chapel St. used to house the longtime Elm City Diner, but inside of it today, you’ll find an Indian restaurant called Tandoor The Clay Oven.
Tandoor retains the building’s old charm but imparts its own flavor onto it. Indian motifs bring color to each table setting, and flower-filled paintings hang between each window, their green frames mirroring the curved tile ceiling above. At the building’s entrance, in place of the cash register are two different bowls of mouth fresheners: one of mints and the other of mukhwas, an aromatic blend of seeds and nuts. Throughout, gleaming mirrors fill the inside walls.
My co-columnist Kofi and I sat on the side away from the old bar counter. Dave Singh, the owner, brought to us papadum, chickpea crisps and three ramekins of bright colored sauce: one tamarind, another mint and a impressively-red onion chutney. As starters, I liked the papadum for their lightness, crunch and kick of chili, especially with the onions.
Much more popular than dinner, Tandoor also offers a $9.95 lunch buffet from 11:30 to 3 p.m. every day of the week. Alongside basmati rice and housemade naan, dishes such as the chicken tikka masala and tandoori chicken are standard fare. The rest changes day-to-day, and I tried the mattar paneer, goat masala and dal tarka with the rice and naan this past Sunday. My favorites were the mattar paneer, a typical tomato sauce dish featuring peas and pieces of paneer, an Indian cheese similar to cottage cheese, and the goat masala, marinated goat meat were on bone within a pepper spice mix. I enjoyed both over rice and with naan.
The naan moves the fastest during lunch at Tandoor. Just as each pile of bread disappears, two more stacks, fresh from the clay oven, fill its place. The naan here is soft but toasted on the outside, and it’s brushed with a light coat of ghee, or clarified butter. As many agree, I find it to be the perfect counterpart to chunks of paneer or chicken and leftover curry mixed with rice. The garlic naan, for order, is abundant with fresh garlic roasted between the layers of bread.
Gulab jamun, fried dough-like balls, and a rice pudding serve as dessert at lunch. These two surprised me. Even if I prefer less in-your-face sweets, one piece of gulab jamun dressed in its rosewater syrup was perfectly rich yet a refreshing way to end the meal. Like lassi, the creaminess of the pudding counteracts much of the main dishes sharp flavor profiles, and I couldn’t help but serve myself another portion.
Maybe it’s obvious to you, but the butter chicken at Tandoor is best not ordered “hot” on the spiciness scale they provide on the menu’s front cover. I caught hints of tomato cream sauce’s sweetness but only over gulps of lassi to drown out spiciness. Clearly this was my fault. Between the butter, tandoori, chili and chicken tikka masala sampled, Tandoor’s meats could use a bit more tenderness on their own, but they’re nonetheless delicious altogether in the mix.
I’m hard pressed to find a more filling and varied meal in New Haven for about $10 in than lunch at Tandoor on Chapel. Moreover, there’s no place like it around town for fans of retro diners and the Streamline Moderne look. If Indian food is what you crave — and even if you don’t, the buffet offers fried chicken wings daily, too — Tandoor is just blocks away from Yale’s campus, and it serves up all of the classics in an all-you-can-eat American fashion.
Brandon Liu | firstname.lastname@example.org .