923 Metarie Road
Metairie, LA 70005
Napoleon's Rating - **/*****
When people like Indian curry, they tend to really like it, to the point where they only half-jokingly describe their need for the stuff as an addiction. But New Orleans is a tough town for curry fanatics, since we have so few Indian restaurants.
Taj Mahal, however, is the oldest and for my money the best. This is a casual place that is pretty slack in some regards, and physically a bit rundown. But without much other serious competition, this is the place to go to get a fix of tandoor cooking, curries, naan-style flatbreads and other specialties of the vast Indian cookbook. The lunch buffet also makes a great value for a quick but interesting meal for a price that's hard to beat.
This is a backstreet joint if every there was one. It's tucked into the corner of a strip mall and it's hard to spot from Metairie Road, though a new and much larger sign has addressed that to some degree. There is a tiny, cramped front room used mainly to set up the lunch buffet and a dining room that has seen better days. Indian tapestries and other decorative elements try to dress the place up a bit, but there's no hiding that the restaurant is overdue for a cosmetic upgrade.
Service is about on par with the décor. It's a take-it-or-leave-it proposition, but at least everyone seems to know the menu inside and out. My guess is that's because the waiters might also sometimes cook the food. They'll steer you toward or away from the really hot dishes depending on your pepper tolerance.
One of the real standouts at Taj Mahal is the kitchen's way with Indian flatbreads. Called naan, these can be used as appetizers in their own right, or kept around throughout a meal to dip in and soak up spicy curries and sauces. Stuffed naans are smeared with a scant spread of various fillings, like ground lamb, green onion and fennel for the keema naan or red onion and cheese for the onion kulcha naan.
Other appetizers tend to be heavy with potatoes and fried batter, so watch how much you eat before the entrees show up. Samosas stuffed with potato and peas or strips of chicken with a puffy batter made from lentils are good, and get better when dipped in the chutneys and sauces brought with them.
The secret to the naan breads at Taj Mahal is the tandoor oven in which they're cooked, and this super-hot, stone oven also works wonders on the restaurant's meat dishes. Juices are sealed inside chicken and lamb, while shrimp comes out looking broiled and crispy. These are all great piled into naan bread and drizzled with thin, green parsley sauce or cool raita yogurt sauce.
The raita comes in handy with the hotter curries, like the one covering the lamb chunks in the rogan josh dish. Cinnamon, ginger and garlic combine for a pulsing flavor that is the essence of Indian cooking's allure.
There are much more mild choices, too, like the gentle but still hardy chicken tikka masala with a comforting tomato-based sauce that isn't that far from marinara, or saag paneer, made with creamy spinach and cubes of mild white cheese. Vegetarians have plenty to work with here, especially with new menu additions from southern Indian regional cooking.
Don't look for tiramisu, cheesecake or the other restaurant dessert standbys here. Rather there are a few sweet traditional finales, like gulab jamun, which are like fried dough balls in rose syrup. Rose water also flavors the kheer, an Indian rice pudding with a mellow, soft taste.
Sometimes only beer will quench the thirst and soothe the palate when the spiciest Indian food is involved, and Taj Mahal stocks the normal domestics plus a few Indian imports like Kingfisher, served in big 22-oz. bottles. The lassi yogurt drinks can also tame the temperature.
Taj Mahal offers good value, with most entrees priced between $12 and $16. A couple should be able to eat dinner here with a few drinks for about $50. The lunch buffet is a reliable bargain, with all the naan, tandoor chicken (on the bone) and vegetarian curries you can eat for $10.
I wish Taj Mahal had more competition. That might sharpen up its dull edges. But as things stand right now, fans of Indian cooking in New Orleans have to be flexible and willing to compromise. Order right, and ignore some shortcomings in creature comforts and polish, and this place can certainly put out a satisfying meal of the sort we don't get enough of in our area.