Tabla Bar & Grill Indian restaurant near Universal Studios
Tabla Bar & Grill is a terrific Indian restaurant in a really lousy location and space. The dining room has the feel of having once been the sort of diner you usually find attached to a motel. And, in fact, it seems to be attached to something similar, perhaps a timeshare facility. To get to the restaurant you have to pass a booth touting tickets to local attractions as well as a convenience store of sorts.
But the important things, the food and the service, are first-rate. The cuisine is authentic, and the staff is welcoming and friendly and they go out of their way to do a little extra.
Take, for example, the offering of rasam as an amuse bouche, or whatever the Indian words for that would be. Rasam is like a spicy, thinner tomato soup. At times it can be quite fiery, as was the case when I reviewed Udipi Cafe for the Orlando Sentinel. Tabla's rasam was delicious, although it was odd that on one occasion it was served warm and on another it was room temperature. One of the servers -- not our waiter but they all seem to work together to help each other out -- picked up the empty glasses the rasam was served in and told us if we liked it that way we should try it with pepper-infused vodka. We agreed that it sounded like a terrific idea. And a few minutes later she returned with two cocktails of a rasam-based bloody mary with a salt rim. Delicious. (And for those of you who know the area Indian restaurants, you'll be surprised to know that Tabla is apparently the only one in Central Florida with a full liquor bar -- no need to limit yourself to a Kingfisher beer.)
Another helpful server on a lunch visit suggested that instead of ordering two appetizers, each costing about $8, I could order a sampler of any three apps for a mere $9. That' a great bargain.
And the appetizers were very good. I especially liked the momo, steamed dumplings filled with ground lamb. The vegetable filled samosas were also good, light and crispy with seasoned potatoes and peas inside.
My favorite among the entrees was the alu bukhara gosht ($20), hunks of lamb in a sauce seasoned with plum and ginger, which gave a sweet note to counter the spiciness. I also enjoyed the murgh dhansak ($15), chicken in a sauce flavored with pumpkin and fenugreek with lentils. It was ordered medium-spicy, which was just hot enough to perk up the taste buds without singeing them.
Lamb rogan josh ($18) was a more recognizeable dish of lamb with tomatoes and almonds. There is a long list of vegetarian dishes. I had the cauliflower mussallam ($12), which had florets in a creamy sauce tinged with tomatoes.
One low point: the rice served with the dishes was a bit too dry and lacked the flavor usually found in basmati rice.
There is a good list of naans, the traditional Indian breads cooked in a tandoor. My guest and I favored the keema naan, which was baked with ground lamb in the bread.
One of the odd things about Tabla is that the sign out front doesn't say anything about it being an Indian restaurant, and most people who see it -- if anyone sees it, given its location behind the Twin Towers hotel (I've lost track of whether they're a Sheraton, Radisson or Crowne Plaza) -- will probably think it's Italian for table. However, tabla is a drum used in Indian music. A couple of them are displayed on the front table, part of a minimalist decorating scheme.
But don't let the location or atmosphere sway you. Tabla is a good Indian restaurant, and those who love the cuisine with find some wonderful tastes not found at many of the other area restaurants specializing in the foods of India.