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Intro to Indian at Taj

J. J. Rees | Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Full disclosure – I’m very inexperienced with Indian food. I could probably count the meals on one hand. A friend’s father is from India, so I was somewhat familiar with a few of the tastes, but most of my experience at Taj Indian Restaurant in Mishawaka was very new. Luckily, I had a seasoned guide who pointed out Taj’s best, and through the course of the lunch buffet, I became a fan of Indian food.

Taj’s menu tells the story of the Taj Mahal and its exquisitely beautiful gardens. The restaurant claims to take its name from the ancient Urdu translation of “The Great Palace.” I’m no stickler, but every source I can find indicates that Taj means “crown.” Fortunately, the people who run Taj know their food better than their Urdu.

The no-nonsense decor leads to a threadbare atmosphere, which actually isn’t a problem. Our server was helpful and cooperative but extremely quiet. Service and ambiance can best be described as minimalist. The way Taj is set up seems to subtly point the diner’s attention to the food. At the lunch buffet, an inconspicuous spread is set up in the back of the restaurant, with simple plates and succinct labels.

I was told that the chicken curry would be a good fulcrum for the meal, and it ended up being one of the best parts. This saturated boneless chicken is stewed in a finely spicy gravy-like curry with tastes of onion, tomato, and ginger. Paired with the aromatic long grained basmati rice, the chicken curry was an excellent food to serve as a primer for tastebuds not very familiar with Indian food.

Next at the buffet was the chicken tikka masala, tandoori chicken (cooked in a tandoor oven made of brick or clay, which uses a smoky open flame) in masala (tomato based sauce and light cream). This chicken was marinated in yogurt with herbs and spices. The chicken itself was not as palatable as the more standard chicken in curry, but paired with the peas pulao (basmati rice flavored with peas and different spices), the chicken tikka masala was a good shift from the other spices.

The sides were an excellent complement to the main entrees. The saag paneer (chopped spinach with homemade cheese, garnished with light cream) was very cheesy but also somewhat creamy, and along with the dal, it was a good respite from the typical Indian spiciness. The potato fritter was crispy and plain, and it served a similar purpose.A high point of the meal was the nav ratan shahi korma. This delectably savory dish gets its name from “nine gems,” after the nine fruits, vegetables and nuts of which it consists. I never thought I’d seriously use the word “explosion” in a review, but it’s a great way to describe the combined taste of raisins, carrots, potatoes, combined in a savory sauce. The garlic naan (unleavened bread with garlic, coriander and seasoning) was a delicious way to salvage excess sauce.

Dessert was an adventure, and not one I’m sure I’ll repeat soon. Gulab jamun is deep fried milk balls in a honey and sugar syrup. Three very sweet words should have been a forewarning of this overwhelmingly sweet dessert. The fried globes were too soggy with the syrup, and it quickly ended the meal.

One of the pleasant surprises of the selection at Taj was the mango lassi, a flavorful yogurt drink. Halfway between a milkshake and a smoothie, this was a delicious counterweight to the earthy spices of the food. The sweet mango taste purged the palate of any curry or masala.Indian food can be a treat, and having such a sound restaurant as Taj in the South Bend/Mishawaka area is a boon. With a lunch buffet for just $6, at least one visit to Taj is a necessity.

Taj Indian Restaurant (3/4)508 W. McKinley Ave.; 574-254-9070Hours: Lunch Buffet 11-2:30, 5-9:30 Su-Th, 5-10 F-SPrices: $7-1210 words or less: Solid Indian food, excellent lunch buffet deal.