New Orleans has never offered many options for Indian cuisine, a hazardous environmental condition for those who quite literally become addicted to the singular spice sensation of good curry. But before the local Keswani family opened Taj Mahal in 1983, there were no restaurants to foster the addiction at all. The family later opened a succession of other restaurants through the years, including Nirvana Indian Cuisine on Magazine Street, which is now the most prominent Indian restaurant in the area.
But Taj Mahal is the place where you're likely to see the highest percentage of customers of Indian descent, which is always a good endorsement. You'll find Indian families taking up half the tiny, somewhat dilapidated dining room on some nights, and also middle-age and older Indian guys sitting there by themselves, not reading or sorting through their text messages or even fidgeting -- like most people do when eating by themselves -- but staring hard at the door to the kitchen until the waiter comes out with a selection of curries, breads and chutneys.
These lone wolves have the look of serious Indian food eaters, and while no restaurant in our area will measure up to the standards of cities with true Indian restaurant scenes, they seem to have ferreted out dishes on the menu to keep them coming back. That's not necessarily easy. Unless you get lucky on your first shot, chances are you will have to sift through some unfortunate episodes on the restaurant's large menu before landing on the right stuff.
The most reliable way to get a good meal here is to start with an order of the naan flatbreads and keep them coming. Taj Mahal has a nice array of these, variously slathered with garlic butter or filled with vegetables, cheese and meats. They are described as "stuffed" breads, but don't expect anything like a calzone. Rather, the breads are split and smeared with a light coat of the promised fillings, which makes them excellent appetizers all by themselves. The onion kulcha is naan laced with bits of red onion for a web of crunch inside the soft layers of bread, and the keema naan has bits of ground lamb, green onion and fennel seeds. The kabuli naan has a surprisingly savory mix of chewy, dried cherries and raisins and richness from chopped almonds and cashews. Quite different but delicious was the poori, or wheat naan fried in a wok so that each piece puffs up into a hollow, softball-sized globe of hot air and oil.
The actual appetizer selection has the usual selection of potato-stuffed samosas and chicken strips or shrimp fried in soft, puffy lentil batter. One of the more interesting selections is the Bombay bhel puri, which is a hash of potatoes, raw onions and puffed rice, like soft Rice Krispies, all covered over with a nutty garnish of thin, fried wheat sticks.
Saag is one of those Indian restaurant standards that should always be a reliable standby, made with creamed spinach and readily accessible to people who are new to Indian cooking or have a low spice tolerance. Every attempt at Taj Mahal was a disaster though, with the lamb saag studded with overcooked, chewy meat and the body carrying no particular flavor at all. The shrimp saag I tried weeks later fared no better, with lifeless spinach and shrimp that tasted water logged.
There is a whole section of the menu devoted to "Chinese Indian fare," though these dishes are only intermittently available. Based on the Mandarin chicken I tried, this might be just as well. It tasted a lot more like bad Chinese takeout than anything you would track down at an Indian restaurant, with strips of fried chicken covered in a sticky, mildly sweet brown sauce.
Like the breads, meat dishes cooked in Taj Mahal's super-hot tandoor oven are safe bets for good eating. This clay oven essentially blasts the meat with intense heat, sealing in juices and turning an ordinary piece of chicken into a delicious package of steaming, marinated meat to be peeled apart in glistening strands. The tandoori platter is a good starting point, with chicken, shrimp and lamb, and it arrives sizzling like a show-stopping fajita plate at Chili's.
Another standout is the rogan josh with cubed leg of lamb in a very spicy, tomato-based curry redolent with garlic, ginger and cinnamon, which is not sweet at all but adds a layer of fragrance. The hot spice registers a few seconds after the first bite, but can paint your mouth with flavor for hours and affect your head in an almost narcotic way.
Getting a truly hot dish here can be somewhat of a negotiation. This a common enough experience in restaurants where waiters try to shield patrons from the full bloom of their cuisine's spice levels, like the gradation of hot and "Thai hot" at SukhoThai in the Marigny or the difficulty in getting anything as hot as the cooks themselves eat during the staff meal at Chinese restaurants. Request that a dish be prepared "hot" at Taj Mahal and the waiter may reply, "how hot?" It can be hard to articulate the answer, but rest assured the kitchen here has the tools to hurt the daring or satisfy the masochistic. So once you've tracked down the restaurant and then found the dishes that will make you want to return, you can turn your attention to finding just the right heat level.