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TANDOOR LOVING FARE

Royal Taj, 1845 East Broadway, Tempe, 967-5234. Hours: Lunch, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., seven days a week; Dinner, 5 to 10 p.m., seven days a week.

Five questions I get all the time: 1. "Do restaurants know who you are?" (No.) 2. "Where can I find a good vegetarian restaurant?" (San Francisco.) 3. "Do you ever get sick from poorly prepared meals?" (Not since I stopped fixing my own dinner.) 4. "With all the eating you do, how come you have such a fabulous body?" (Actually, no one ever asks this question.) 5. "What's your favorite kind of food?" That last question is a bit tougher to answer. This job has turned me into a culinary sultan, and the Valley's restaurants into my harem. Free to pick and choose, I can pretty much satisfy my gastronomic lusts no matter what I crave.

But the constant novelty and variety, though exciting, can have drawbacks, too. It's impossible to form a lasting relationship. Sometimes, I dream about faithfully settling down with that one special cuisine and getting to know it completely. When I have such fantasies, it's usually Indian food that dances through my mind. I guess that's because Indian fare offers such astonishing novelty and variety all by itself. The complex seasonings and sophisticated preparations create tastes that only a few cuisines can match, and none can surpass.

So it was not only the call of duty, but also an instinct for pleasure that led me to two Valley Indian restaurants. And to get a different slant on the meals, I spiced up the evenings by taking a pair of neophytes who'd never tried Indian food to one place, and a couple of Indian friends to the other.

The neophytes and I headed to Royal Taj (formerly A Taste of India), as far as I know one of only two Indian restaurants in the East Valley.

For a shopping-strip storefront, it's pretty spiffy: brass sculpture, sequined cloth prints hanging on the walls, a shiny bar. The absence of piped-in sitar music is a definite plus. So is the eager-to-please turbaned staff. Not the pakora appetizer, though. Vegetable pakora is usually an assortment of different veggies--cauliflower, potatoes, onion--fried up in a distinctive chickpea batter. Here, however, the veggies have been ground together and formed into identical balls. So instead of different pakora featuring a particular vegetable taste and texture, Royal Taj's are all blandly the same.

Aloo chat, on the other hand, is an aggressively different starter, a heavy mix of cold boiled potatoes and chickpeas coated with a tart dressing. The neophytes shied away, but the dish slowly grew on me. The real glories of Indian fare, though, are the main dishes. A few moments inhaling the scent of native spices--cardamom, cumin, fenugreek, cloves, cinnamon, coriander, ginger--will make it obvious why Europeans set up trade routes to the East. It's not only the spices that make the food appealing, but also the method of preparation. Take the tandoor, a ferociously hot clay oven that sears in the juices of marinated meats and imparts an irresistible grilled fragrance. Royal Taj offers a tandoori dish that lets you sample chicken, lamb cubes, ground lamb kebab, a bit of fish and a single teeny shrimp, set on a sizzling metal platter lined with hissing onions. Order some naan, leavened bread baked in the tandoor, or some excellent bhatura, deep-fried puffy bread that resembles Navajo fry bread, and roll up the meats and onions. If this is an acquired taste, it certainly didn't take long for my quick-to-learn companions to acquire it. Most of the other dishes were equally successful. Chicken mughlai is a don't-miss, especially when you factor in the fetching $6.95 tag. It features chunks of wonderfully moist fowl in a rich, creamy sauce thickened with eggs and nuts. Fish curry is just about as aromatic. The kitchen uses mahimahi, and knows how to cook it. The fish swam in a dark, pungent curry sauce that unfortunately wasn't nearly as spicy hot as we had asked for. If you want your dishes at steam-out-the-ears heat levels, it looks like you'll have to be more insistent than I was. Still, you can fire up any dish by calling for achar, a hot, sour, pickled vegetable condiment that isn't listed on the menu. Indian cooks can perform extraordinary feats with vegetables, which shouldn't be too surprising when you consider that beef is forbidden to Hindus, and pork is proscribed by Islamic law. Royal Taj puts out a delectable saag paneer, a creamy blend of delicately seasoned Indian cheese and spinach. Benghan bhartha, however, is disappointing. Lacking any pulpy heft, the eggplant in this dish arrives pur‚ed in a mushy heap. Compounding the problem, the kitchen goes too light on the spices. The essential accompaniment to any main dish is rice. As diners would expect, Royal Taj uses basmati rice, an incredible perfumed Indian variety. (In Hindi, basmati literally means "fragrant.") If you can afford $3.95, try it as peas pilau, basmati rice dotted with peas, a bit of dried fruit and ground almonds. Unless you like desserts scented with rose water, you may as well call it a night at this point. I find that kheer, an Indian rice pudding, has a refreshing, offbeat taste. Not everyone does. The golab jamum, deep-fried batter thoroughly soaked in heavy sweetened syrup, aren't worth the calories. More seriously, the Indian tea, the key conclusion to any Indian meal, was inexcusably weak and tepid. Royal Taj isn't breaking any new culinary ground. But if you're an east-sider tempted by Indian cuisine, it's a good place to give in to temptation.

Indian Delhi Palace, 10321 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale, 922-8484. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 11:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; Dinner, 5 to 10 p.m., seven days a week.

A new branch of the venerable Indian Delhi Palace restaurant on McDowell, this Indian Delhi Palace is obviously hoping to snare some of the growing dining-out business in the northeast Valley.

It's in the location that used to house a French restaurant called Barbara's. The latest proprietors obviously haven't taken out any remodeling loans. The chairs and carpet look the same. A few embroidered hangings have been tacked up on some otherwise bare walls. You can also stare at the buffet lunch cart edged up against the side of the room.

The less-than-opulent setting wouldn't have attracted my baleful attention if the food had been riveting enough. A good meal served in the Black Hole of Calcutta would probably still rouse my enthusiasm. But the food here is, at best, hit or miss.

My Indian companions wouldn't even try the unappetizing-looking appetizers. I had to. The limp, lifeless vegetable pakora might make even a devout Hindu contemplate the charms of a Big Mac. The samosas were practically inedible--old-tasting minced chicken stuffed inside a pouch about as leathery as Jack Palance's saddlebag. I know these starters must have been fresh at one time, but it may have been the day I wore a Nehru jacket to my cousin Robert's bar mitzvah. Most of the main dishes we tried range from fair to palatable, not a very impressive range when you consider Indian food's potential. The mixed tandoori grill is routinely tasty, made up of a quarter chicken, two pieces of boneless chicken breast, ground lamb kebab and two cubes of lamb. Also in its favor is the $11 tag, which is lower than I've seen elsewhere in town for this dish.

Malai kofta got the only unanimous thumbs up. They're little vegetable balls blended with Indian cheese, served in a wonderfully fragrant, creamy gravy. Spooned over basmati rice, it's the one dish we scraped clean. Lamb pasanda newabi promised sliced lamb in an appealing cream sauce thickened with yogurt and scented with mixed ground nuts. The problem with this platter stemmed from our difficulty in locating the lamb. An all-out search suggested that it had gone the way of Judge Crater, Amelia Earhart and Jimmy Hoffa. When I asked the waiter to identify the type of fish employed in the fish curry, he shrugged in ignorance. After a few bites, though, I had my answer: the dreaded Indian rubber fish. The curry itself, which we requested extra hot, came clear-your-sinuses smoking. But the fish should have been thrown back.

Even the benghan bhartha lacked zest. If I hadn't known it was made from eggplant, I might never have guessed it. This dish usually makes me swoon--the version here made me snore. Like the appetizers, desserts are abysmal. My experts refused to put their spoons in the ras malai, a Bengali treat of pistachio-flecked sweet milk and cheese. "It doesn't look fresh," they said, and a taste confirmed their opinion. The golab jamum, meanwhile, also tasted "off," as if they'd been sitting uncovered in a refrigerator for a few days. Alas, the excellent, steaming cup of aromatic Indian tea was too little, too late.

Opening a second restaurant is like having a second kid--the number of dependents doubles, but the problems quadruple. It looks like India Delhi Palace's operators haven't yet figured out how to cope.

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Royal Taj Indian Cuisine

1845 E. Broadway Road
Tempe, AZ 85282

480-967-5234

www.royal-taj.com


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