Almost one for the too charred basket

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 25 August, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 25 August, 2011, 12:00am


At the heart of any serious north Indian kitchen lies a mini-volcanic cavity called a tandoor oven. Fired up to 480 degrees Celsius, the clay oven imbues meats and flatbreads with a uniquely smoky flavour, with even charring on the outside and moist tenderness on the inside.

Those in search of tandoori flavours need look no further than Tsim Sha Tsui's Chungking Mansions, where more than a dozen north Indian mess halls (along with Pakistani, Middle Eastern and African eateries) are housed within its five labyrinthine blocks.

Time and again within the foodie circuit, we hear the names of Taj Mahal Club and Khyber Pass uttered in tandem with 'tasty tandoori dishes'. This week, we visit the sweltering melting pot to find out which of the two does them best.

Khyber Pass recently renovated its interior, trading in Formica tables and plastic chairs for fancier, lacquered wood surfaces. But the lighting in the cramped dining room remains stubbornly fluorescent.

We order the tandoori mixed grill (HK$90) and a plate of cheese paratha (HK$25) to go with it.

The meats come piled high on a sizzling hotplate over a bed of chopped lettuce already wilting from the heat; there are plenty of chicken chunks, minced lamb rolls and a fillet of fish covered in a thin coat of breadcrumbs. There are two different marinades for the chicken - one yellowy yogurt-based and the other a dry chilli rub. The former makes for very tender morsels of meat, and the latter a more smoky char - both are delicious.

The halibut is fresh, white and flaky, more what we'd expect from a plate of fish and chips than a tandoori dish. The lamb rolls are solid and well-charred, a tad dry but full of flavour. The paratha resembles naan - which is doughier and less layered. The cheese has a curious hint of blue to it, which, for paneer, isn't a good sign. We ask whether they gave us the wrong order and are cryptically told that for what we ordered, this is what we get.

At the Taj Mahal Club, there is more aisle space, and the lighting is softer and warmer. Here, service comes with a smile. The tandoori mixed grill (HK$85) and paneer paratha (HK$18) arrive faster than at Khyber Pass and with a bit more sizzle. Portion size is about the same, but here they pile the lettuce on top - it's a little messier digging for the meats, but the lettuce retains a refreshing crunch.

The chicken is done in a single marinade and is overall a bit drier and tougher, though the spice mix is fragrant with garam masala. The lamb rolls are softer and the mince chunkier; there are nice bursts of cumin seed with each bite; alas, they are severely oversalted. The fish is a disappointment; while we prefer the oilier mackerel variety used here, the piece (small and with skin on) we are given is overwhelmingly fishy. The Taj does better with its flatbread - the paratha is not too thick, crispy on the outside and sprinkled with fresh curds and fenugreek.

The verdict: it's a tough call - the competing dishes each had strengths and weaknesses. For its overall ambience, service and food quality, we give Taj Mahal the title - but they should rethink the salt content and execution of the fish.

Khyber Pass

Shop E2, 7/F, Block E,
Chungking Mansions, Tsim Sha Tsui
Tel: 2721 2786
Open: noon-3pm; 6-11.30pm

Taj Mahal Club

Shop B4, 3/F, Block B,
Chungking Mansions, Tsim Sha Tsui
Tel: 2722 5454
Open: 11.30am-3pm; 5.30-11.30pm