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Nov 29th
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The Making of Maharaja

diningNew Indian dining portal shows promise | By Josie Cowden

India is a fascinating country. It’s an overload of sights, sounds and smells that pervade the senses. I am very glad I experienced it, and that includes the pleasure of eating incredible dishes packed with exotic spices of all kinds. In England, where I grew up, Indian food is now so popular that chicken tikka masala has taken over from roast beef and Yorkshire pudding as the Brits’ most favorite dish.

I was happy to see a new Indian restaurant called Maharaja had opened its doors on Dec. 4 last year, taking the place of another rather tired and worn Indian restaurant called Royal Taj that existed in the same spot for years.

A total revamp of the interior by the new owner Kemal Mann was just what was needed, and the restaurant is now much more appealing with fresh coats of paint and some interesting décor. Hindu gods look over us as we dine, including Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and prosperity—both material and spiritual. The restroom has been redone, too, and is now sparkling clean. A little table next to the sink on which to put one’s purse is a needed addition, though.

My husband, who loves Indian food—we always eat copious amounts of it when we’re in England—was my dining companion at Maharaja, and both of us were excited about trying the food. Choosing to sit in a comfortable booth, I noted that the seating/table-height ratio was spot on.

Wine and beer selections are not printed on the menu, but our server reeled off choices and we selected two different Indian beers ($4 each). Our appetizers of two tasty Vegetable Samosas ($3.95) arrived and some unexciting Onion Kulcha (naan bread) for $2.95, but we had almost finished them before we reminded our server about the beer. Apologizing, he came back with one large bottle to share and said he would charge us for one small beer. Customer satisfaction is important, and this little problem was handled well.

My entrée of Chicken Tikka Masala—Tandoori chicken breast cooked in a mildly spiced sauce ($11.95)—was good. Tender pieces of chicken had absorbed the flavor of the sauce, and, served over basmati rice, is a filling dish. My husband ordered Rogan Josh, a classic lamb curry blend of tomatoes and spices – and one of his favorites. This staple of Kashmiri cuisine was tasty with its blend of spices—cloves, bay leaves, cardamom, cinnamon —but we both thought it a tad salty. I’m sure that the chef, Bhajan Singh, is still working out the kinks.

Rice is extra ($2.95) and one portion might not be quite enough for two. We had some from our second portion to add to our leftover entrees to enjoy the next day. An afterthought sticker on the menu says “add dinner for $3.95 includes naan, rice, salad and raita” which is a much better deal than buying all these separately.

Good news for vegetarians and vegans is that a number of dishes are offered, and, from their menu descriptions, all sound delicious.

Tandoori specials offer lamb, chicken and prawn, and under seafood entrees, all five dishes on the menu contain prawns. Beef is not offered at all, of course, the cow being a sacred being in Indian culture.

From the four dessert choices, I enjoyed Kheer ($3.50), a creamy sort of rice pudding flavored with cardamom and saffron. Although it said “garnished with pistachios” on the menu, after prodding around, I could find only almonds.

Indian food is often toned down for the Western palate, and I think that Maharaja could boost up the flavor quotient and heat content a bit, or at least provide menu options with varying degrees of spiciness, but it is early days. Right now, it’s good to have a new Indian restaurant to welcome us.

Maharaja, 270 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz, 427-2666. Hours are 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5:30 to 10:30 p.m.

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