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Sizzling Tandoor in Santa Rosa

Finding Nirvana on a plate with only 112 dishes left to try.

By Carey Sweet

Editor's note: First Bite is a new concept in restaurant writing. We invite you to come along with our writers as they—informed, intelligent eaters like yourselves—have a simple meal at an area restaurant, just like you do. This is not a go-three-times, try-everything-on-the-menu report; rather, this is a quick snapshot of a single experience.

"It's a Culinary Nirvana Here!" boasts the sign at Sizzling Tandoor, a restaurant that's flourished in downtown Santa Rosa for an admirable 20 years. And perhaps it is where true Nirvana lies now, since the restaurant of that name (Nirvana Indian Fusion Sanctuary), which for a short while occupied space directly across the street, closed last month.

I liked Nirvana. But I've got to say, after a recent feast at Tandoor, the best Indian restaurant has won. Even if our dinner service was interrupted for almost half an hour by a belly dancing display (note to management: I can eat and watch at the same time), leaving us ravenously chewing on the tablecloths after being taunted with a too-tiny plate of appetizers, I left happy, impressed and putting the place in my Rolodex of must-recommends.

My group ate just five entrées, which means that there are still 112 more dishes I would like to sample from the extensive menu. I didn't find a misstep in the bunch, even finding consensus among a covey of companions who are generally pretty tough to please.

My brother, a hardcore saag snob, deemed Tandoor's lamb version ($14.95) perfect, and it was: the meat ladled in a wet clump of fiery spinach curry kissed with cilantro. His girlfriend, who often painstakingly makes her own korma, was enraptured by the presence of crunchy cashews, pistachio and almonds in the creamy chicken sahi ($14.95). My sister, a vegetarian when the cooking is good enough to make the practice convenient, found great joy with bhindi masala ($9.95), an intricate stir-fry of julienned okra, onion, curry leaves, dry masala, mustard seeds, spices and cilantro.

Mom's choice was a masterpiece, curiously described as "globules" that turned out to be fabulous falafel-like dumplings of homemade paneer cheese and vegetables stewed in a thick, savory onion and cashew gravy ($10.95).

My mixed grill ($21.95), meanwhile, brought the best of everything together on a small, sizzling platter overloaded with tandoori chicken and shrimp, chicken and lamb tikka, shish kabob and fish tikka. There were none of the dry, overcooked meats I've come across way too often; rather, these were expertly tender, juicy specimens, piled atop crunchy roasted vegetables.

We dipped and wrapped it all in pillowy naan plus a side of whole-wheat paratha ($3.25), and scooped forkfuls of it up with aromatic basmati rice studded with peas ($3.50).

To be fair, it was my own fault that the starter had left us starving. Next time, I'll know to get several orders of the "assorted Indian snacks" ($7.95); the single serving wasn't meant for five, and was too good to share anyway, with its flaky spiced potato-pea samosa, plump potato-cauliflower-eggplant pakoras, shish kabob, chicken tikka and crispy papadam.

No wonder Sizzling Tandoor has been Nirvana's earthly home for almost two decades.

Sizzling Tandoor, 409 Mendocino Ave., Santa Rosa. Open Monday through Saturday for lunch; daily for dinner. 707.579.5999.

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Quick-and-dirty dashes through North Bay restaurants. These aren't your standard "bring five friends and order everything on the menu" dining reviews.