India’s cuisine may be the most enigmatic in the world. Using complex blends, the aromatic food introduces diners to exotic spices like asafetida, while making familiar flavors, like garlic, taste new. The nearly miraculous sum—which spans a robust array of vegetables, legumes, dairy products and cooking methods—is greater than its many remarkable parts, somehow avoiding ending up as a jumbled, muddled mass.
Inhaling the fragrance that wafts up from these dishes can border on overwhelming, yet I'm often caught off guard by the subtlety of its flavors. How could what I’ve smelled and what I’ve tasted come from the same food?
Wrapped up in Indian perfumes and flavors, I sometimes feel as though I’ve betrayed my first loves, French and Italian. I bury the guilt under paneer and ghee and silently beg for forgiveness. Considering all this, my expectations were high as I took my seat at Taj Palace.
The interior, with its muted colors and clean design, is best described as understated elegance. White tablecloths flank a buffet line and call to mind an old-school country club. The divided dining room fosters a cozy feeling.
On my first visit I hit the buffet. There were various curries that were tolerably piquant and fresh naan that was soft and chewy. I tried everything and overall was pleased with the quality and selection. Nothing was dried out or carelessly prepared.
The dish was infused with a lingering zest that warmed my mouth but didn’t overstay its welcome.
It was surprising to see goat on the buffet. There it was, paired with a vivid curry, for the unsuspecting to ladle onto their plates. And ladle they should, as it was an excellent example of how delicious goat can be when it’s not gamy. I even went back for another helping of succulent hunks, then washed my marathon meal down with a mango lassi on ice. The pureed mango-and-yogurt drink was so good I sucked the glass dry.
Returning for dinner, the saag paneer (cheese and spiced greens) was thick and creamy. The dish was infused with a lingering zest that warmed my mouth but didn’t overstay its welcome. An order of samosas (fried patties stuffed with potato) had a nice kick to it, and the potatoes were tender without being mushy.
Tandoori chicken, pulled from hot ovens, displayed delicate spice and was replete with moistness. In fact, all Taj’s meats had a characteristic moistness.
I enjoyed everything I tried. The service was as perfect as the food. Refills were prompt, and politeness could be this place's trademark. Everything about Taj was seamless and brilliantly executed.
But one thing really bugged me. I usually appreciate a quiet restaurant, but Taj had an unsettling silence—one brought on by too few customers. At lunch, the only other customers seemed to know the owners. I saw a few occupied tables at dinner, but the dining room was nowhere near capacity. I can’t understand how a restaurant so expertly executed could be so neglected by the hungry masses.
Perhaps it’s an issue with location. Businesses in strip malls, like Taj Palace, have an uphill battle to prove they’re more than their real estate suggests. And if the new kid on the block doesn’t have a familiar face, he's easily ignored.
Whatever the reason, I’d like to make a sort of plea to those looking for a good meal. If Albuquerque is to move forward and further diversify its dining scene, we'll all have to do our part and at least give its fledglings a try. How many times have you promised yourself you'd eat at some new restaurant only to find its closed doors before you got around to it? Good food is an endangered species in these parts, and Taj Palace is an outstanding restaurant.
The Alibi recommends:
• Saag paneer
• Goat curry
• Tandoori chicken
• Mango lassi
Taj Palace, 1435 Eubank NE, 296-0109. Hours: lunch 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m; dinner 5 p.m.-10 p.m. Open every day. Ambience: curry and class. Price range: buffet $7.95 to $8.95; dinner $7.50 ( dal makhani ) to $17.95 (mixed grill). Credit cards, large parties, buffet.