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Taj Mahal
****
Out of a possible five
$

Flavor feast to savor at Indian spot

Although the heavy incorporation of herbs and spice makes it one of the more exotic ethnic foods, the Indian cuisine at Taj Mahal in Covington Plaza had plenty of familiar traits.

From the moment I sat down, a basket of papadum crackers and dish of onion and chili chutney were placed in front of me. As I crunched away and dipped the paper-thin lentil wafers into the chunky chutney, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Mexican tortilla chips and salsa.

The chicken pakora appetizer featured boneless chicken marinated in mild spices and batter-fried. They were crisp and tender, and had I not known better I would have thought I was eating good ol’ chicken tenders. The tamarind chutney dip accompanying them was sweet and sour, which is the kind of sauce fast-food joints have served with tenders for years.

And, speaking of chicken, I dare anyone who likes barbecued chicken to try Taj Mahal’s tandoori chicken and tell me they don’t like it. The skinless pieces of chicken were bright red from the mild chili powder it is seasoned with and nicely charred around the edges from the tandoori clay oven. It was tender and juicy, and the yogurt, lemon and spices used to season it gave it a sweet, slightly smoky and addictive flavor.

Chunks of that delectable tandoori chicken were used to make the chicken makhani. Commonly called butter chicken, the chicken was enrobed in a thick, almost pasty orange tomato and butter sauce dotted with herbs that was simply divine. It was rich and sweet with just a hint of heat, and I soaked up every drop with my basmati rice and naan bread, which was also divine.

The naan – oven-baked flatbread – at Taj Mahal was cooked perfectly to be soft and chewy but still browned enough to pick up a little of the flavor of the oven. I also tried the garlic naan, which was a bit firmer.

Both were great just by themselves, but I really loved stuffing them with every lunch buffet dish I tried from that tandoori chicken to the saag paneer.

The saag paneer, made from spinach and cheese, was just one of several vegetarian dishes on the buffet. I also enjoyed the nay rattan shahi korma – nine assorted fresh vegetables sautéed in fresh herbs and spices. I identified cauliflower, lima beans, peas, carrots, chick peas, broccoli and green beans in the tangy orange sauce. It was surprisingly filling.

Just as robust was the aloo baingan of quartered potatoes and eggplant in an even spicier sauce.

The two varieties of vegetable pakora had familiar aspects. The first were mostly onion in a bread-like batter that was deep-fried until crisp, sort of like a hush puppy. The others were of batter-dipped cauliflower, which wasn’t a far stretch from those being hocked at county fairs. Both pakoras were also available in a tray on the buffet, swimming in a yellow turmeric-spiked peppered sauce, which softened them up much like dumplings.

The curried chicken and handi chicken, also on the buffet, were good, the latter being whole bone-in pieces roasted in another yellow turmeric-based sauce. Traditional creamy kheer rice pudding, fruit-cocktail spiked mango pudding and dense honey-soaked balls of gulab jamun – essence of milk fried in vegetable ghee – were the buffet’s dessert offerings, and all three proved to be fine choices.

But the best entrée and desserts were not on that buffet, which left me troubled as to when I should go back to Taj Mahal. Do I go for the buffet and get a little of a lot or get what I liked best?

Due to the escalating prices of lamb, none of it is on the buffet, an employee told me. It’s too bad, because the lamb vindaloo was impressive.

Big cubes of leg of lamb were cooked to perfect medium-rare temperature (still pink inside) and joined by equally sized pieces of potato and slices of onion in a dark gravy-like sauce. I was asked how spicy I wanted this “hot and spicy” dish and chose medium but wish I had asked for it to be a bit hotter. It wasn’t a far stretch from any good American leg of lamb with potatoes and gravy, but the spices and touch of vinegar gave it several more levels of flavor.

The dessert I loved was the pista kulfee – pistachio ice cream flavored with cardamom. Kulfee ice cream is denser and richer than American ice cream, sort of like frozen custard. The cardamom gave this bright green dessert, which was packed with chopped pistachio, a wonderful floral essence that really awakened the palate.

The service at Taj Mahal was exquisite. My creamy, frothy Indian coffee arrived lickety-split, my water was refilled regularly – a must when trying all the spicy dishes – and no detail was spared. The only thing I found troubling was the deplorable condition of the restroom, which really surprised me considering how clean the dining room and the buffet tables were.

Restaurant: Taj Mahal

Address: 6410 W. Jefferson Blvd.

Phone: 432-8993

Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday; 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday

Cuisine: Indian

Handicapped accessible: Yes

Alcohol: Beer and wine

Credit cards: Yes

Kid-friendly: Not really

Menu: Lunch buffet ($7.95), Garlic naan ($2.95), naan ($1.95), lamb vindaloo ($11.95), chicken makhani ($11.95), pista kulfee ($2.95)

Rating breakdown: Food: ** 1/2 (3-star maximum); atmosphere: 1/2 (1 maximum), service: * (1 maximum)

Note: Restaurants are categorized by price range: $ (less than $20 for three-course meal), $$ ($20-$29); $$$ ($30-$39), $$$$ ($40-$49), $$$$$ ($50 and up).

Ryan DuVall is a restaurant critic for The Journal Gazette. This review is based on two unannounced visits. The Journal Gazette pays for all meals. Email him at rduvall@jg.net, call at 461-8130. DuVall’s past reviews can be found at www.journalgazette.net, and you can hear Ryan from 3 to 4 p.m. every Thursday on 92.3 FM, The Fort.

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