Cauliflower and love … with wine
I can still remember when all Bono really did was sing. The “Mysterious Ways” video with its Middle Eastern flair was just one of the many reasons that former high school top 40 pop junkies like myself found a crooning hero in the U.N.-happy lead singer of U2. Since he’s a bit tied up these days, I’ll have to go back to worshiping Lemmy from Motörhead.
There’s nothing wrong with oldies, as long as they’re still goodies. Taj Mahal has been around for nine years, and they still put out the tandoori, the paneer and the murg without lobbying Congress.
Passing under the purple awnings, I am always impressed at how quiet and, well, rich the interior of this restaurant is. The dining rooms are quite upscale, with the tables done up in stately purple and grey, and the Kama Sutra-esque artwork throws down some shine on what could have been an austere environment.
I was dining among a large group of friends when one of them pointed out the portrait of love directly next to us. It’s a thought-provoking piece featuring a dark and handsome bearded man attempting to seduce the hell out of a noticeably reluctant sequined beauty. Then, upon closer inspection, we saw the clincher: Shrimaan (the Hindi word for “mr.”) was trying to get Kumari (the Hindi word for “miss”) liquored up by pouring a stiff drink into a jeweled chalice. I must have been deprived in high school, as the closest I came to a chalice was one of those square glass bottles filled with grape Mad Dog.
This got us in the mood for a nice glass of wine or two, and the wine list is modest, affordable and pretty well matched to the food choices. There are the usual suspects like Kendall-Jackson Chardonnay and Rosemount Estates Shiraz, but also a couple of good picks for Indian cuisine like the Santa Rita ‘120’ Merlot from Chile (a rich, full-bodied red) and the Fetzer Gewürztraminer, which is light-bodied and semisweet with a tiny bit of spice.
And much like a Motörhead concert from days of yore, the food came fast and hard with nary a break. We all ordered the Bawarchi Ki Pasand ($4.95 per person) which is a chef’s sampler plate consisting of spicy breaded and deep-fried cauliflower and chicken drummies, hot, minced lamb patties, even hotter fried onion balls, and huge dumplings stuffed with potatoes, peas and yellow curry. The dumplings were the table fave, and it was agreed upon that if Shrimaan would just offer Kumari a plate of those, he could save himself the trouble of plying her with mystery wine.
Next on the considerable menu for the evening was the Kandhari Naan, a house-made tandoori bread stuffed with bits of chicken kabob. Our server told us later that the tandoori chef pulls the stuff out of the oven with his bare hands, and that the poor man has no arm hair to speak of. We honored his sacrifice to the depilatory gods by wolfing down the entire basket without coming up for air.
Our entrées came swiftly (breaks are for wussies, right Lemmy?) and the portions were more than adequate. We did the family-style pass-around thing so that no one would be left out of trying anything. I ended up sampling the Barra Akbari ($14.95), which is charcoal-grilled lamb chunks marinated in yogurt and spices, the Murg Curry Shahajani ($11.95), or chicken served in a warm red herby sauce, the Gobi Ghost ($12.95), which is sautéed cauliflower and lamb in a red curry sauce, and last, but certainly not least, the Saag Paneer ($9.95), a traditional stewed spinach in cream sauce with homemade chunks of cheese.
All of these turned out to be excellent choices, but a few really stuck out. The tandoori lamb, for being deliciously burnt on the little ends, and the paneer was, as one of the party put it, “better than the stuff at Wild Oats.” No offense to the natural marketplace, but this stuff--and its cheese--is the real deal, so why skimp?
The chicken had an amazing sauce, and the spiciness kind of crept up on us after a few bites, catching us off guard in a good way. Rather like imbibing an illegal substance (Lemmy knows), we called the dish “creeper chicken” for the duration of our meal. I was also pleasantly surprised to see the liberal use of cauliflower, and I was touched that it was remembered over its more colorful brothers and sisters.
Ahhhh, the desserts. It was a tough choice--all of us were stuffed, but we tried two of the more exotic sounding offerings. The Kulfi Piestewali ($4.25) turned out to be two small molded frozen custards, one sweet cream and one mango, both flavored with cardamom and sprinkled with crushed pistachios. The Gulab Jamun ($3.95) was a tasty and traditional Indian treat made up of two sweet bread nuggets swimming in warm honey and rosewater syrup.
You very well could have stuck me in a tandoori oven, because I was stuffed with wine, lamb and spices by the end of our evening sojourn. There really wasn’t anything about my visit to Taj Mahal that I didn’t like, and if it took these guys nine years to put out food this good, I betcha they’ll have 90 more. Plus, we all managed to figure out how to get Kumari out of her sticky wicket with Shrimaan: Introduce her to Lemmy. Not only is he a god, he’s probably got better stuff than the “Banana Red” Mad Dog that Shrimaan was serving up.