Monday, June 06, 2011

Taj Mahal: Definitely worth a try.

1520 Market Place, Little Rock

My friend and I went to Taj Mahal today, and I was pleasantly surprised with what we found: seemingly authentic Indian food (I'm no expert on this type of cuisine; actually, I honestly can't think of anything I'm an expert on, but that's beside the point) using fresh ingredients, with good service and a desire to please. I say "pleasantly surprised," because I had been to Taj Mahal once before -- evidently, shortly after it had opened -- and wasn't impressed. When I told the manager I had been there before and noticed quite a difference today, he rolled his eyes slightly and gently suggested that they had had some growing pains at first.

He said that the restaurant has now been open about six and a half months. That's encouraging. Also encouraging is the fact that they have added a full bar. How any restaurant can survive for very long without a full bar is beyond me, given the customary mark-up on beer/wine/liquor and attendant revenue boost a bar provides. I think we all know of many "restaurants" that have terrible food and likely survive exclusively off of their bar proceeds. Excuse me, did someone just say Dizzy's??

Anyway, the food was quite good, and very similar to the offerings at Amruth both in terms of quality and relative heat. I asked the manager to compare his place with Amruth and Star of India, and he said he would try to be unbiased. Amruth, he though, was more of a café, and his place more of a sit-down restaurant. OK, I'll agree with that. He also said that Amruth tended to concentrate on northern Indian cuisine, and offered fewer dishes with meat in them. Taj Mahal, he said, tried to vary their menu regularly, included more meats, but still focused primarily on northern Indian dishes. Not being an "expert" on anything, I had to accept his opinion on this. But, I'll admit that it makes me very curious about southern Indian cuisine now, and why nobody around here offers it.

The manager also echoed my feelings about Star of India and its Americanized and much milder Indian dishes. Star has a successful formula, a faithful clientele, and no desire to change. It's a good place for unadventurous diners who want to eat Indian-like food. And, interestingly, Star's response to the arrival on the scene of both Amruth and Taj Mahal was to drop their prices by 25%.

Bottom line: I think you should give Taj Mahal a try. If you're like me and went there when they first opened and weren't impressed, go back -- the food is noticeably better. It's tasty, fresh and significantly different from the dishes -- even the same dishes -- at Star of India. The lamb vindaloo, in particular, was quite different. It had a darker, peppered sauce with a very distinct and pleasant flavor of lamb that I have rarely tasted in Star of India's version. The chicken curry also had a subtle sweetness that I thoroughly enjoyed. I think we'll go back in the evening and check out the difference between lunch time and supper.

Cost for two for lunch buffets, a tea and water = $22.19, based on $8.99 apiece for a "weekday buffet." Not cheap, but about what you'd pay at Star of India, and the food, like that at Amruth, is much better, definitely hotter and seemingly authentic.


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