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[whitespace] Royal Family Dining

The heat is on at Mountain View's Taj Mahal restaurant

By Joseph Izzo Jr.

THE TAJ MAHAL along Mountain View's resurrected Castro Street symbolizes the flip side of that wondrous royal palace built in India out of huge slabs of white marble. This Taj Mahal is a humble storefront eatery made royal not by architecture but by the exotic enticements of its cooking.

As soon as we arrived, fiery aromas warmed our rain-damp clothes until steam rose from our shoulders. It was one of those nights when escaping from the rainy elements into an ordinary neighborhood restaurant is as soothing to the spirit as a potent red wine. So relieved were we to get inside that our small group stared like gawking fools at ersatz prints of Indian queens, elephant-fighting warriors and village life in the Punjab. Aside from these few pieces, the décor was spare, with mostly bare white walls serving as the backdrop for our own suburban American adventures.

First to the table were glasses of yogurt-rich mango lassi ($2) and baskets of crispy lentil wafers called papadum ($1.50) that we munched like chips with sweet tamarind dipping sauce. Popping and sizzling and wafting aromas that jolted the nostrils heralded our second appetizer of assorted tandoori ($6.95), consisting of yogurt-marinated chicken barbecued in a hand-cast clay oven. Certain pieces of the chicken were hot, spicy and infused with sensations of the clay, while others were not at all, tasting as if they'd been pulled from a different oven kept on low heat. Our assorted vegetarian hors d'oeuvres ($4.95) hit the table also without proper heat, which drew our attention to the heavy pastry crust forming leaden pockets for spiced potato and vegetable fillings. Fish pakora ($5.95), basically an Indian version of fish and chips, offered up nondescript white fish sealed inside batter fried golden, but once again, served lukewarm. No doubt, better timing would improve the quality of these appetizers.

My Indian guest, Balbir, had just begun to voice his disappointment over the opening courses when main dishes started to arrive. Chicken tikka masala ($7.95 a la carte) rekindled his hopes, with meaty pieces of roasted chicken in a rich creamy sauce woven with tomato and perfumed with spices. When the meat was gone, we spooned this lush sauce over heaps of vegetable biryani ($7.95), or basmati rice seasoned with garlic, turmeric and star anise, then scooped it up with pieces of tandoori-baked onion culcha ($2).

Taj Mahal's rendering of the Goan specialty goshat vindaloo ($10.95) was as hot and spicy as we had expected. This engaging stew, made hot with cayenne pepper, combined tender lamb and potatoes in a thick gravy with the consistency of good chowder. At times, we found ourselves digging in with spoons.

To accompany our meat selections, we enjoyed another long-simmered specialty, garbanzo beans (chana masala, $5.95) deeply seasoned and full of exotic flavors. Then came sag paneer ($5.95), fresh spinach stirred together with homemade cheese to form a rich and mild-tasting vegetable side dish that partnered perfectly with our basmati rice. Toward the middle of our dinner, I found myself abandoning fork and using the tortilla-soft onion culcha bread to mop up the goods.

The serving staff is comprised of family members and friends who attend to their guests with warmth and earnestness. Our waitress, who was also the owner, showed great patience with our high spirits and small calamities, humoring us through each course.

Authentic Indian music provided the soundtrack to our evening, and, combined with the food and the friends, made me fantasize about traveling to Asia.

As I paused at the front desk to partake of some dry fennel seeds offered to sweeten the breath, I happened to look back and notice a print depicting two feminine hands opened graciously. The word "welcome" was printed below.

Taj Mahal
Address: 185 Castro St., Mtn. View
Phone: 650.968.8008
Hours: Lunch 11:30am-2:30pm Mon-Sat; dinner 5:30-10pm Mon-Sat
Cuisine: Indian
Price Range: $5.95-$15
Tandoori buffet daily

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From the February 25-March 3, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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