For a cuisine that's been around some 5,000 years, Indian food is remarkably in keeping with contemporary tastes. It's low-fat, chock-full of vegetables, and meats usually are limited to small portions. And during a recession that has people pinching pennies, it's also economical. Most local Indian restaurants keep entree prices around $10, and many set out all-you-can-eat buffets for even less.
Yet Indian cuisine still lacks mass-market fans. Why? Perhaps because it sounds so much like health food. It's been ingrained in popular culture that anything with virtue has got to be tasteless, boring and unsatisfying. Secretly, we crave what's gratifying, not good for us. How else could freak shows like Survivor and Fear Factor be raking in such big bucks? Who's watching, when we're supposedly at the gym every night?
Plus, many Indian dishes look weird, cooked in blah-hued stews like from-the-jar baby food. Then there are those bizarre names -- plates of murg makhani, dopiaza, gulab jamun. Punjabi lassi? That sounds like a canine television star sporting a spear or a bad sense of humor.
Well, fine. Such thinking just means there's more Indian food left for me. Because I know the truth: Despite its seemingly Puritan personality, its sometimes unsettling looks and its sci-fi titles, the cuisine that comes from India is capable of sending sparks off forks.
In fact, the food is sublime, involving an elaborate labyrinth of color, texture and flavor. Tastes are layered and complex, often including ghee (clarified butter) for a creamy finish that's incomparably rich. Spices come in rainbow reflections, applied lavishly in tiers of turmeric, ginger, garlic, fennel, coriander, cumin, chili, mint and more. Playing the riff is garam masala, an intense, aromatic mixture that has no set recipe but often includes cinnamon, cloves, black pepper and black cardamom.
When prepared with professionalism and passion, Indian food rivals the world's finest gourmet creations. And when crafted as it is at the West Valley's new Maharaja Palace, it's easy to understand why gluttons like me want to keep the secret to ourselves.
Maharaja Palace opened in June in a location familiar to Valley lovers of Indian food. The spot formerly was the highly lauded Bombay Palace, a destination restaurant that since opening in 1998 never suffered for its low-key digs in a nondescript mall in Glendale. It did fall out of favor, though, when new owners sacrificed quality and service, according to the complaints I heard. Its demise was a loss to the area, already severely lacking quality ethnic offerings.
With new Maharaja Palace owners Sucha Ram and Joginder Bains, the west side has a topnotch Indian restaurant once again. Ram is a pro, boasting more than a decade in the professional kitchen, most recently at Tempe's popular Delhi Palace. Bains is new to the business, but appears to embrace the important philosophy of paying more for fresh ingredients and from-scratch cooking.
Food is in the spotlight here. Decor isn't, pairing pomegranate-toned vinyl booths with bubblegum-pink tablecloths, black-and-green chairs, silk roses, chandeliers and paper place mats. The color scheme is a bit jarring, as is the jittery Indian music beeping and bumping in the background. But respectful service soothes the jagged edges, with staff attentive but attuned to when we want to be left alone.
I like that diners are gently told that assistance with the menu is happily offered, without making anyone feel stupid for not understanding the cuisine. Unsure? Let the staff do their stuff -- choreography is vital to Indian eating, as dishes are served simultaneously for sampling and sharing.
Combination is key: A typical Indian meal is a feast including a meat dish, a vegetable dish, a "pulse" (peas or lentils) dish, bread and/or rice, yogurt for coolness, and fresh salad, relish or chutney for sharpness.
Textures count. If a meat dish is saucy, it's best paired with a drier vegetable selection; if the vegetables are soft, a crunchy relish offsets them. Optimally, too, heat varies between plates, such as an aggressively spiced shrimp vindaloo (a fiery stew of potatoes, tomato and chile pepper) tamed by began bhartha (herbed eggplant roasted to a thick pulp).
Choices at Maharaja Palace are endless. Someone so inclined could eat for a year here, and never duplicate a combination meal. In entrees alone, Maharaja Palace dazzles with more than 60 vegetarian, seafood, chicken, beef and lamb plates.
(Interesting note: Maharaja Palace serves Halal meat on request. Halal is an Arabic word meaning lawful or permitted by Muslim decree, and excludes such things as pork, or animals killed in the name of anyone other than Allah, the Islamic God.)
An appetizer of papadum is the first clue that Ram knows his art. The homemade crispy sun-dried lentil wafers vibrate with the brilliant peppery fire of black cumin. Snap off pieces and dunk them in cool mint or sour-sweet tamarind chutneys. A quibble, though: While many Indian restaurants start with a complimentary serving, at Maharaja Palace, the crackers cost $1.50.
Samosas are stylish, too, bringing two crisp, snowball-size puffs, stuffed with potatoes, peas and mellow spices, then deep-fried in vegetable oil. Chicken pakora comes from the fryer as well, the bundles of spiced boneless chicken dipped in a golden coat of chickpea batter.
Mulligatawny means "pepper water," and this from-scratch soup spits curry-kissed flames when ordered highly spiced. The lovely, rich broth floats with chicken, lentils and generous scatterings of fresh herbs for a heady depth that intensifies after each spoonful. For tangy contrast, try it with dahi vada, lentil cakes soaked in spiced yogurt.
Even the people uninitiated to India's cuisine likely will recognize tandoori, referring to the tandoor clay oven. Ram takes his meats -- chicken, lamb, shrimp or fish -- marinates them in yogurt, garlic, ginger, vinegar, herbs and spices, then leaves them to roast in the oven over mesquite charcoal. This is the real thing, resulting in fuchsia-stained flesh emerging juicy and crisp-edged, then plopped on a sizzling onion bed.
There's more sizzle to be found in the first-rate karahi dishes, served in superheated iron skillets. They're Ram's specialties, and rightly so. Lamb jalfraizee is luscious, a tender, meaty toss of tomatoes, onion and green pepper in a vinegary, ginger-imbued gravy. Karahi tandoori chicken sag unites three stellar dishes -- clay-oven-baked bird, spinach and mildly spiced gravy, and the sizzling platter. Lamb boti masala is silk on the tongue, slathered with a voluptuous tomato-ghee gravy. And karahi aloo palak arrives as a sumptuous example of a vegetarian dish tumbling together fresh chopped spinach, potatoes, onions and tomatoes deliciously complicated by a wealth of spices.
Indian food has a reputation for causing sweaty brows and gasping breath. Mention a love for fire, and Ram will make it so. Yet he doesn't hide behind the flames. Lamb korma is a jewel of delicate meat blended with tangy yogurt and nuts, while pasanda nawabi melds cultured yogurt and a fresh cream sauce over sliced lamb.
Ram's skill also shows in those dreaded healthful vegetarian dishes. It's hard to mourn the absence of meat when plied with Maharaja Palace's from-the-earth bounty. "Unexpectedly enthralling" is an accurate way to describe aloo gobhi, the humble cauliflower and potatoes suspended in a light current of tomato, cumin, garlic and chili. Daal makhani is a limpid pool of split lentils, simmered to a thick soup, while plump, sturdy cubes of mild Indian cheese bob in a stew of curried spinach, making it a sumptuous palek paneer.
Bombay Palace was revered for its deft touch with biryani, mixing basmati rice -- the fragrant, perfumed grain that's an Indian staple -- with ingredients like nuts, herbs and spices plus vegetables or meat. The reverence is revived at Maharaja Palace, though the long-grain rice sometimes veers to dry.
Maharaja Palace's breads are nothing short of perfect, homemade and baked in a clay oven. The naan is fantastical, pillowy and chewy, the leavened white bread misting damp, delicious-smelling sighs of steam as it's pulled apart. Keema naan is an addictive nibble, the bread plumped with minced lamb. If this restaurant happened to be in my neighborhood, I'd be making daily treks for aloo paratha, unleavened, multilayered whole-wheat bread stuffed with mounds of chili-cilantro-spiced mashed potato that's finished on a griddle.
Choosing, in fact, becomes the greatest challenge to dining at Maharaja Palace. The most efficient entree is the lunch buffet, a meager $6.95 investment for tandoori chicken, two meat curries, three vegetable curries, daal, basmati rice, naan, salad, pickles, chutney and two desserts. I'm not much of a fan of buffets, preferring my food cooked to order, but this fare holds up fine in the interest of a quick in-and-out.
Three daily dinner specials make for a well-rounded tour, offering a compact version of the Indian food experience. The Maharaja special is a pretty presentation, a sizzling platter packed with tandoori chicken, chicken tikka, shish kebab and slightly chewy lamb boti kebab over hissing onions. Alongside: vegetable curry, naan, dessert, coffee or tea for an unbelievable bargain of $14.95.
My favorite, though, is the blandly named non-vegetarian dinner. Presented on a platter of individual metal ramekins, it's a sundial of complementary tastes, colors and textures. The standards: papadum, tandoori chicken, daal, naan, basmati, raita (soupy yogurt spliced with vegetables), dessert and beverage. It also includes a chef's choice of one meat curry plus one vegetable curry.
It's unfortunate that Indian cuisine has yet to earn its deserved respect in the USA. The food need not be intimidating. Those scary dishes mentioned above? Murg makhani is tandoori chicken in tomato-ghee gravy. Dopiaza means cooked in onions and tomatoes. Gulab jamun is simply creamy cheese balls in light syrup. And that Punjabi lassi is no dog; it's a dreamy, creamy, fresh-swirled yogurt shake dusted as we wish with either sugar or salt.
This food is healthful, but don't hold that against it. The cuisine at Maharaja Palace shows us what living -- and loving -- life is all about.
Get the Dining Newsletter
The week's top local food news and events, plus interviews with chefs and restaurant owners, dining tips, and a peek at our print review.