Originally published in the December 2016 issue of Dispatch Magazine
To the many disciples of Chef Raj Mandekar’s finesse-driven Indian cookery, the proposed expansion of his beloved Kittery restaurant, Tulsi, to a brave new outpost, meant that Portland was finally going to be home to a sorely needed eatery of this caliber.
Much to our chagrin, the expedition only made it about 25 minutes north before settling into an encampment in the still-south-but-slightly-more-north town of Wells, where Tulsi North opened very quietly this past October.
The dishes on the first menu will be familiar to those who regularly dine in Kittery, with a few notable additions – such as Chili Idli, succulent deep-fried lentil dumplings tossed in a fiery, Indo-Chinese-style glaze of soy sauce and chili paste that slowly builds to a sweat-inducing crescendo as one plows through all of them at an uncontrollably fast pace.
This is not what Tulsi North was slated to be. I had originally been under the impression that it was going to be entirely seafood centric rather than a near mirror image of Kittery’s menu. The décor of the place, which is a bit smaller than the original, is still painted utilizing the colors of India’s most prominent spices, which imparts warmth but does not distract from the meal.
Mandekar, who stands tall and lithe with boyish looks and a shock of black, curly hair resting on his shoulders, explains that the opening menu is meant to showcase his work to patrons who may not have been to Kittery’s Tulsi, but will soon transition into something different.
“We want to focus on dishes from the southern coastal regions of India,” Mandekar says, “while at the same time utilizing what is good from right here in Maine, but serving it in a much more highly seasoned fashion than people are used to.” This point is reflected brilliantly when I take a bite of pan-fried haddock and shrimp that have been rubbed with cumin, coriander, garlic, and cilantro, served with a wedge of charred lemon.
Focusing on Southern Indian cookery involves a departure from the familiar Mughlai and Punjab dishes (tikka masala, biryani, korma, palak paneer, etc) and centering mostly on seafood. Dishes like marinated, grilled lobster with curry and tomato rice as well as seared scallops with mango saffron cream and fresh sautéed corn will be what sets Tulsi apart from other Indian restaurants in the U.S.
Bala Muthu, who has been cooking under Mandekar for the past four years, runs the kitchen at Tulsi North.
“At this point Bala and I are on the exact same page,” Mandekar says, “And I couldn’t be happier to see his influence on the food here.”
This is evident in the lamb sukka, which is slowly braised with onion, garlic, and a blend of garam masala spices that have been toasted and left whole in the pot. It is finished with a silky tomato sauce accentuated with cashew cream, garnished with fried curry leaves.
One dish that I can personally take credit for is zaffrani jhinga, which is, in my opinion, the closest thing to heroin that one can experience with food. Tender shrimp are sautéed with a liberal amount of garlic and white wine before being enrobed with a cashew cream sauce flecked with saffron and served over mint basmati rice. It was found on the menu at Tulsi’s original location in Kittery (which now houses The Black Birch), and when Mandekar took it off the menu after the expansion, I complained so relentlessly that he put in back on the menu up north in Wells. You’re welcome, now go eat it, goddamn it.
Bengali-style desserts like ras malai consists of a soft, fresh cheese ladeled with a concentrated milk sauce, pistachios, and almonds, and elevates the experience beyond what most Indian restaurants offer in this realm (Usually a mango lassi – which, don’t get me wrong, I’ll drink all day, no problem).
Given that he is opening a restaurant in Wells heading straight into winter, I cannot fault Mandekar for gradually transitioning his vision with Tulsi North. In the meantime, one should definitely order the Chicken Tikka Masala with gusto, as it is still one of the best I have ever had – especially when mopped up with Peshawari Naan (filled with dried fruit, nuts, and coconut).
They will keep the big bottles of Taj Mahal Lager nice and cold for you.
231 Post Rd | Wells | (207) 360-0443 | tulsiindianrestaurant.com