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Address: 598 New North Road
Phone: (09) 815 8080
Open: 7 days
Since travelling to India two years ago I've been trying to find an Indian restaurant in Auckland where the flavours are authentic enough to transport me back to that mesmerising country.
There are a few that have been getting me halfway there but I was still on the hunt when someone mentioned Tiffin Indian Cuisine, at the Morningside end of Kingsland.
I've always been fascinated by the tradition in India where home-cooked lunches are prepared and packed into layered tin tiffin boxes which are then collected and transported to workers and school students via a complex delivery system. How they manage to code and track the thousands of identical-looking tins across those busy and chaotic city streets amazes me. But I understand the motivation - home-cooked food that can be enjoyed away from home. That's what the young owners, husband and wife Manish and Kajal Patel, are aiming for with Tiffin, their first restaurant.
Neither the dining room nor the menu gave away anything that would indicate this restaurant was serving Indian cuisine that would distinguish it from the rest.
The menu looked fairly standard with the usual butter chicken and rogan josh topping the list, but a closer look threw up some welcome surprises.
We began with freshly prepared samosas with pastry that was light and flaky, cooked to a golden crisp shell encasing a soft and spicy potato filling that made our taste buds dance. Another starter of onion bhaji was served in the way I like best - strips of onion dipped in spiced batter and deep-fried to golden and served in a pile, as opposed to a ball or fritter - and they were tremendous, albeit served not quite piping hot.
But it was the mansoori lamb that really got us excited. Lamb cutlets were smothered in a spicy yoghurt marinade and dry roasted in the tandoor oven. The patience of an overnight marinade paid off hugely with meat that was so tender and soaked with flavour that we sucked the bones clean.
This starter, as well as the chicken tikka, had been cooked in the traditional clay oven that at Tiffin is fired by charcoal. It makes all the difference. The owners are adamant that quality and flavour must come before convenience and it shows in such decisions as installing the charcoal oven over the more convenient gas-fired variety you find in many other Indian restaurants.
Likewise the spices they use are imported every few months direct from India to ensure they are as fresh as possible, and this was obvious in the liveliness of the flavours.
The vegetarian options we chose were the sort that make vegetarians feel smug, they were so good. A palak paneer, with its big soft cubes of freshly prepared cheese, and a dal mahkani (black lentils) were exceptional.
The lamb nawabi, a speciality of chef Patel, was a welcome deviation from the usual lamb offerings of korma and rogan josh. Tender morsels of lamb are cooked in a blend of spices and a sauce of coconut cream, fresh cream, capsicum, onions and long strands of coconut and it was worthy of its title - "nawabi" meaning royal.
For our last main, I'd uncharacteristically ordered a dish that was, I suspect, on the menu to appease "Western tastes" as opposed to having its origins strictly in India - mango chicken curry. However I was keen to see the treatment Patel would give such a dish and after a few mouthfuls of this complex layering of spices, sweet pureed mango and finely diced onion, I was a convert. I'd ordered it on the hot side of medium and the heat beautifully balanced out the sweetness. Masterful.
It is the attention to detail in Tiffin's food that elevates it above the rest. Basmati rice is flecked with toasted cumin seeds and cardamom, the garlic naan is charred and blistered in all the right places and finished with a sprinkling of fresh, zingy coriander and the home-made pistachio kulfi is delicious with its hint of mysterious cardamom.
Most importantly, each of the curries we ate tasted distinctly different from one another and were alive with flavour.
As we left, I noticed the traditional Indian good luck offering that new business owners place above the door - a posy of fresh chillies and limes. I felt like the lucky one for finding Tiffin.
From the menu: Onion bhaji $5.50, chicken tikka $7.90, mansoori lamb $10, mango chicken $17, lamb nawabi $17, dal makhani $12.50, palak paneer $14.90, garlic naan $3.50, mint and tamarind chutneys $3.
Drinks: Beer and wine, BYO wine only ($3.50).