Business News, Medford Eats

Restaurant Review: Arlington’s Punjab

Arlington is a comparatively restaurant-rich environment, so the lamentations over the (as it transpired) temporary closing of Punjab were perhaps a tad surprising. The longtime Northern Indian favorite was forced to shut its doors in February 2016, when a water pipe burst during a cold snap; local fans were bereft. Issues with the contractor delayed the reopening, which finally took place this past August. From the way the news was greeted, you might have thought Punjab was the only restaurant, or the only Indian restaurant, in town.

It’s neither, but for reasons evident both before and after the hiatus, it may be one of the most beloved of area eateries. Staffers say the kitchen leadership remains unchanged, and the place seems as warm and inviting as ever. The night of our visit, 10 days after the reopening, there were a few glitches in service and pacing of the meal. But for food this fresh and flavorful – truly a few notches above the local standard for Northern Indian cuisine – we’re willing to chalk that up to opening-month jitters.

The large, lively room, done up in warm earth tones, could appear cavernous, but it’s cleverly divided into distinct areas, most notably by a sort of central “tent,” as well as by a large bar to one side of the dining room and by plush, oversized booths on the other, creating a series of intimate-feeling spaces. With a giant, highly polished granite table surrounded on three sides by a massive horseshoe-shaped banquette, a booth was almost too large for a party of four, but it would be a nice option for a bigger group.

Some might contend that you can judge an Indian restaurant by its samosas, turnovers stuffed with various vegetables or meats. That’s probably too narrow a lens, but if it were turned on Punjab, the place would pass with flying colors. These are very nicely done examples of the type. We tried the vegetable version, a classic filled with potatoes and peas; the portion of two, served on a stylish triangular plate, was flaky, crisp and fresh, without the doughiness that sometimes mars this dish. A spicy green chutney lent the samosas a tangy herbal kick.

Like subcontinental nachos

Aloo papri chaat, offered here as an appetizer, is a popular street food in Northern India: Crisp fried wafers topped with tomatoes, yogurt, cilantro, chickpeas and sweet-and-spicy sauce. The menu led us to expect potatoes, and not chickpeas, but the dish was nonetheless tasty, balancing tartness, crunch, salt and sweet in a way that suggested something like subcontinental nachos.

For diners who are new to Indian food or cautious about curries, tandoori chicken is usually a nice gateway dish. Marinated in yogurt and spices, and then cooked in a special oven, it’s generally no more threatening or exotic than ordinary grilled chicken. But like ordinary grilled chicken, it can sometimes disappoint by being dried or tasteless. Hats off to Punjab, then, for its moist, rich version: a half chicken (handy for those torn between white and dark meat) atop onions and peppers, deeply flavored and salty – in a good way – but not hot-spicy.

Other dishes will, or can, please those seeking something more piquant. Mindful of their audience, servers unfailingly ask whether diners would like their meal mild, hot or medium, even for dishes – such as vindaloo curry – that typically offer just one setting. It’s nice to have options, though some may quibble about the authenticity of the approach.

Tandoori duck masala, a twist on more typical chicken tikka masala, was a special the night of our visit, and a clear winner: lean and almost smoky chunks of duck, in a sweet, smooth tomato sauce reminiscent of tomato soup, but with a kick of spice and complexity. Mango chicken kadhai was also a special, another tomato-based curry but quite different, with a sauce thickened by pureed mango. With onions, peppers, and tender chunks of chicken, it was moderately spicy (as requested) and nicely balanced between sweet and hot.

Like many Indian restaurants, Punjab is a great place for vegetarians, with lots of meatless menu options that don’t in any way seem like compromises. Baingan bhartha was one of the best versions of this dish we’ve tried (and we’ve had many): Smoky eggplant cooked over an open flame, mashed with spices and then sautéed. The dish tasted freshly made, with cilantro lending its distinctive note, and was a bit more chunky – hence satisfying – than other baingan bharthas around Boston.

Kitchen details excel

In the kitchen, Punjab excels at the details. The garlic naan was delightful, both crisp and tender and richly slathered with ghee, or clarified butter. The complimentary chutneys, so often an afterthought at India restaurants, were superior, especially the lively onion version spiked with chunks of hot pepper. Outside of the kitchen, the details might leave some room for improvement. To keep dishes warm at the table, they’re set over little candles. Our food was delivered tableside but left to languish on a serving tray while our waiter dashed off to find a working lighter; while we waited, the food cooled off, defeating the whole purpose of the candles.

Food was generally slow to arrive, and though we were thanked politely for our patience – more than once – you can’t eat gratitude. At a nearby table, one patron departed after waiting in vain for a server to take her order. All round, the place seemed to be struggling a bit with service.

Undoubtedly, after waiting a year and a half for this favorite to reopen, some diners will be disappointed – not because Punjab is disappointing, but because the buildup will have inevitably created heightened expectations. The new Punjab will meet some, but perhaps not all, of those expectations. But it does meet them where it matters most: in the quality and freshness of its food.

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