A few days ago, I was dining with an Indian engineer friend with whom I have a habit of discussing food and drink at some length whenever we get together. We were talking about curry when he made the observation, in silky tones honed by decades of Merchant-Ivory movies, cricket and afternoon tea, that he was impressed by how au-fait the British are with Indian dining. "You chaps understand Balti, you thrive on vindaloo and positively rejoice in a good rogan josh," he enthused. "You seem to understand the subtleties of our cuisine even though you have none of your own of which to speak. I"m always astonished when I go to England on business to rediscover just how good Indian cuisine is in that benighted country." Had his sentence structure not been so damned impeccable, and his sentiments so selfless, I would have been tempted there and then to slap his thinning pate and put him firmly in his place for practicing undue condescension. This, however, would have doubtless lowered the tone of the evening, and so, instead, I found myself begrudgingly agreeing with him.
Being raised in the industrial Midlands of England, I was exposed at an early age to the pleasures of a good curry. My hometown had a population of some 5,000 Indians and Pakistanis, which represented a sufficient critical mass of immigrants to support a significant number of excellent little ethnic eateries. These places were hot (in terms of temperature, not popularity), seldom spotless and could be smelt from blocks away. There"s nothing to get the gastric juices flowing quite like that first whiff of searing coriander and cumin as it wafts towards you down the damp and littered sidewalks of a grubby Midlands brewing town.
By the time I arrived at college, I had been thoroughly introduced to the pleasures of a dozen pints of foaming IPA (or lager, for those of a loutish predisposition), followed by a Bloody Good Curry. The beer binge succeeded by a huge onion bhagee or a vinegary lamb vindaloo is something of a British institution these days, but one that has still to take root in tradition on these shores. Probably with good reason. The combined effects of numerous mugs of riproaring ale and a monstrous serving of vindaloo is something to which no truly civilized society should be exposed. At least not in church on a Sunday morning. Curry, not to mention Indian food in general, now enjoys so many associations with wanton excess, prodigious feats of drinking and deranged behavior that it"s taken on a cultural life of its own.
The main problem with Indian restaurants in this town, and in many Midwestern towns, for that matter, is that the food is generally toned down to accommodate the perception of the middle American palate. I find this odd, because people here, in my experience, tend to enjoy the big and spicy dishes of the Southwest or the Caribbean or of New Orleans as much as anyone else. The majority of gastronomically-inclined Hoosiers of my acquaintance have a pretty serious threshold when it comes to spice and heat. Contrary to conventional wisdom, however, most Indian food really isn"t that hot: It tends to rely instead on complexity of spicing for its effect. For some reason, though, most Indian restaurants in this area tend to disguise their regional origins with excessive additions of cream or tomato paste, in the fear, perhaps, that the local palates won"t appreciate the real thing.
This is a shame, because Indian food, like that of Canton, Mexico or Vietnam, is some of the most sublimely sophisticated grub around if it"s allowed free rein to express itself. There are several decent Indian restaurants in Indianapolis, some of which have been favorably reviewed in these pages, but none to my knowledge that do more than skirt the foothills of authenticity, let alone scale the heights. Taj of India, conveniently located if you happen to live in Castleton, deserves to join the ranks of local Indian eateries somewhere near the top, although some of the dishes still seem to cater to a certain perception of local taste.
From the outset, it is clear that Deep, Taj of India"s skillful chef, knows a thing or two about his native cuisine. When you eat at this clean and traditionally-decorated establishment, you"ll need to bring a healthy appetite to do the place justice.
There are plenty of dishes here for the vegetarian, but if you"re of a carnivorous bent, I can highly recommend starting off the evening with the non vegetarian platter, which is an ample starter for two ($6.95). This consists of three kinds of chicken: tandoori, pakora and tikka, with some vegetable pakora thrown in for good measure. Tandoori cooking refers to the clay oven in which the marinated food is cooked at a blisteringly high heat, sealing in the flavor and cooking the meat, fish or poultry in its own juices. Tandoori chicken is served without sauce, unless one adds cream and tomatoes, in which event the dish becomes chicken tikka masala. Both examples at Taj of India are very respectable, and the masala is not too heavy on the cream. A half (and very ample) portion of tandoori chicken runs $8.95.
A good way to approach the entrees at Taj of India is to go with a small group of adventurous friends and share a few dishes prepared in different styles. On a recent visit, I went with only one friend, but we managed to cover quite a bit of ground, including a couple of orders of the excellent papad ($1.50), complete with dipping sauces, and a very respectable naan, a flat bread cooked in the tandoor ($1.75) These breads are useful for cleansing the palate in between tastes of different dishes, or even for scooping up finger loads of rice and sauce.
In addition to a portion of tandoori chicken, we opted for a lamb vindaloo ($10.50) and a rogan josh ($10.95). We asked for the former to be prepared on the spicy side, but were a little disappointed at its lack of burn. This is supposed to be a very vinegary dish, one that makes you sweat after a few mouthfuls. Although the vinegar was present, it really didn"t assert itself.
Rogan josh is a spicy and rich red lamb stew from Kashmir which is not at all hot, but intensely rich and aromatic. It is prepared with lots of garlic, onion, coriander, cardamom and plenty of paprika for color. The version we sampled at Taj of India was pretty authentic: aromatic, filling (there"s quite a bit of yogurt in the sauce) and thoroughly satisfying. If you"re on the lookout for new ways to prepare lamb, this one"s well worth the effort.
For dessert, I can highly recommend the kulfi, a sort of ice cream made from condensed milk, almonds, pistachios and cardamom pods. This is most refreshing and typical to several regional Indian cuisines. There"s a short beer and wine list here, although I suggest that, whatever else you may drink, you try the excellent Lassi, which is made from yogurt and rosewater.
Taj of India
5929 E. 82nd St.
Lunch Buffet daily
Food : 3.5 stars
Atmosphere : 2.5 stars
Service : 3 stars