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.