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Taj Mahal does it right 

With a feast of flavors.

click to enlarge FLAVOR BURSTS: The decor is lovely, but the food is why you'll go to Taj Majal again and again.
  • FLAVOR BURSTS: The decor is lovely, but the food is why you'll go to Taj Majal again and again.

On our last trip to India, just outside the colorful, chaotic Bada Bazar in Udaipur — through a maze of people, cars, rickshaws, dogs and the occasional meandering cow — we happened upon a vendor frying up snacks in a 4-foot-wide cast iron pot. When the cook turned his attention our way, we held up two fingers, not knowing exactly what that would yield. What we got were two plates of samosas covered in chickpeas, green and red sauces, fresh onions and cilantro: a delicious snack known as Samosa Chaat.

You'll find basically the same version at Taj Mahal, but without the noise, rickshaws and cows. The restaurant is spacious but feels cozy. Ornate window treatments and wallpapers in shades of burgundy and gold lend a regal air to the space. The archways, chandeliers and beaded curtains are the kinds of details you would find in nice restaurants in India.

The food, though, is the star of the show. Samosa Chaat is offered as an upgrade to a regular order of samosas. We recommend it ($5.95 for the veggie version). A spiced pea and potato filling with notes of mustard seed and coriander fill a crisp and flaky crust. The samosas are sliced and topped with warm chickpeas, tomatoes, onions, cilantro and chutneys. Even though the base of this dish is fried, the freshness of everything that comes on top makes it seem light. It's a pleasure to eat, and filling, too. One order is enough for at least two people to share.

Sharing is the name of the game when it comes to the main course. Taj Mahal's menu offers so many choices, and you'll probably want to try more than just one dish. The Shahi Korma with chicken ($11.95) is a good option for the less adventurous. The creamy, cashew-based sauce offers a good flavor with little spice. It won't blow your mind, but people easing into Indian food might start here.

The Saag with lamb ($15.95) was a hearty dish that offered a smooth, earthy flavor. While it was creamy, we found that Taj Mahal's version had way less cream and butter than we are used to, and that was fine by us. That allowed the flavor of the spinach to shine. The lamb was tender, but we think it could have done with a little less time in the pot.

click to enlarge SAMOSA CHAAT: Chickpeas, onions, tomatoes and cilantro combine for a winner.
  • SAMOSA CHAAT: Chickpeas, onions, tomatoes and cilantro combine for a winner.

In many cuisines, vegetables are seen as "side dishes" and often are treated as a second thought. That is not the case with Indian food and especially not here. The Bhindi Masala ($9.95), chopped okra with tomatoes, onions and aromatic spices, was the most pleasant surprise of the night. We're generally not a fan of big chunks of onions and bell peppers in our vegetable dishes, but they were cooked perfectly, tender with a bit of a crunch. The smoky, grilled flavor from the roasted okra complemented the sweetness of the tomatoes nicely. There is no sauce. As the tomatoes cook down, they bind everything together. We ordered it at a spice level of 5, enough to let you know there's heat but not overkill — a true medium.

The Baighan Bartha ($9.95) was the most beloved dish on our table. It is a must for the next time you go and will probably be the dish you order every time you go back. Taj Mahal takes roasted eggplant and sautes it with onion, peas and tomatoes. The mixture is cooked with a good amount of oil, or maybe ghee, with lots of spices, including garlic, ginger, turmeric and coriander for a punch of flavor. The Baighan Bartha is great with rice, bread, or all by itself.

You'll get your own bowl of spiced basmati rice. The rice is cooked perfectly and the flavor won't disappoint. We felt a bit rationed, after being spoiled at other Indian restaurants with a platter of rice to go along with all the dishes, but if you need more, they'll happily bring more.

There aren't many Indian restaurants in Little Rock and those that have been in business for a bit tend to develop loyal followings. Since it opened, this was the first time we stepped out of our old habits to try Taj Mahal. We're glad we did. Restaurant loyalty definitely has its place, but it's also good to branch out a little and spread the love. To do otherwise would be to miss out on a delightful experience.

Taj Mahal Indian Kitchen
1520 Market St.
520-4900
tajmahalar.com

Quick bite

No Indian feast is complete without bread. You have plenty of options at Taj Mahal, from naan to paratha and poori. The garlic naan ($2.95) was exactly what we were hoping for. A generous portion of roasted fresh garlic sits atop a big piece of pillowy bread that's covered in butter and fresh herbs. Great for dipping and not bad left over either.

Hours

11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

Other info

Full bar, credit cards accepted.
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