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The Clay Oven: Complex Indian cuisine 

The tandoori chicken. - PHOTO BY MARK LEE

The Clay Oven takes its name from the traditional tandoor, a specialized oven capable of achieving extremely hot temperatures, employed widely in India and the Middle East for the rapid cooking of meats, vegetables and breads. It's a fitting name, as several of this excellent restaurant's signature dishes are prepared in this manner, and the owner-chef has spent years in, amongst other places, London and Florida, honing his skills.

Indian cuisine is one of the most sophisticated and complex in the world, with thousands of regional specialties, most of which don't seem to leave the country. A shame, perhaps, but if you even casually peruse the Clay Oven's menu, you'll find at least a hundred authentic items, all reasonably priced, and more than enough to keep you in Indian food for months without ever repeating a dish.

Although the emphasis may be upon the aforementioned tandoori dishes, there's also a healthy assortment of meat, specifically lamb, chicken and seafood, as well as a smattering of goat. In addition, there's a significant selection of excellent vegetarian dishes, quite a few of which are vegan, so there really shouldn't be any trouble satisfying almost any dietary requirement. Except for beef and pork eaters, that is.

On a recent visit, we were particularly impressed by the freshness and vitality of practically every dish sampled. It was obvious that the spices, if not absolutely freshly ground, had been prepared in the very recent past. Vegetables were crisp and fresh tasting, with a good variety of preparations. One of my frequent complaints about Indian establishments is that the sauces can be too easily overwhelmed by cream and butter, diluting the impact and aromatics of a properly spiced dish. Not so here.

Particularly tender and perfectly spiced was the tandoori chicken ($10.95, including rice, pappadum and mint chutney.) Deep red in color from marinating in lemon, yogurt and spices, it was slightly blackened on the outside and wonderfully moist within. The other chicken dish, Chicken Tikka Massala ($11.95) was maybe a bit less successful, being a bit heavy on the tomato. But as it's not a real Indian dish anyway (its origins are in Glasgow), we weren't too disappointed.

Surprisingly (for an avowed carnivore), the standout of the meal was a delicate and utterly more-ish plate of chanasaag ($10.95.) Yes, you heard it here first: a vegan dish blew my socks off. Mildly spiced with garlic, ginger and fenugreek, this creamy, profound dish of garbanzo beans, tomatoes and spinach was little short of ethereal. Eat this with your hands and a naan bread ($1.95): it's a good way to appreciate the dish's complexity.

Also great in the vegetarian department were a creamy and crunchy vegetable korma ($9.95) and a crisp, perfectly seasoned appetizer of vegetable pakora for $4.95. Rounding out the meal was an unusual and tasty pudding made from carrots instead of rice, but with a similar texture. Light and delicate, but deeply flavored, it rounded the meal off perfectly.

Décor-wise, there's not a lot to write home about, because here the food is the real star. Service is prompt and very attentive.

A great way to sample many of these dishes is to try the buffet lunch for $7.99.

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