Saturday, December 7, 2013
When you crave Indian food, there's nothing better than a lunch buffet where you can sample several different dishes for a modest price.
Paul Guntaka shows off the Indian Shrimp Masala at Taj Indian and Indo Chinese Cuisine in South Portland.
Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer
TAJ INDIAN AND INDO CHINESE CUISINE
WHERE: 200 Gorham Road No. 8, South Portland. 828-6677.
HOURS: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday to Thursday; 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday
CHEAPEST GRUB: Dishes on the extensive menu range from $3.99 to $12.99; the weekday lunch buffet is $9.99
WAIT: None for lunch buffet
HANDICAPPED ACCESSIBLE: Yes
Based on a five-star scale
The Portland area has yet to get a truly outstanding Indian restaurant, although with more places opening up, we're sure to hit the jackpot sometime. Taj provides the latest incarnation of Indian fare here. (Tulsi in Kittery is probably the best Indian place in Maine.)
Taj is located in the Clarks Pond shopping center area in South Portland, where the Indian restaurant Aroma used to be. It's been getting rave reviews online, so I decided to check it out during one of the lunch buffets.
My visit was mixed. Some items were delicious, others disappointing. Overall, however, I think fans of Indian food will want to pay a visit to Taj.
Taj offers its lunch buffet daily from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. During the week, it's $9.99, and on the weekend, it's $11.99.
On the day I visited, the buffet featured four vegetarian dishes and three meat dishes. Even when trying just a small taste, there's no way you can plow through every single dish.
I tried the veggie korma, which consisted of peas, carrots and potatoes in a creamy gravy. I'm a little suspicious that the peas and carrots may have been frozen, but the dish was still fine for lunchtime fare, and had a nice little kick to it.
That's one thing I really liked about this place. Some of the dishes had heat to them, but not so much that they would turn off people who aren't used to it or don't like it.
I also tried the spinach dal and a very good egg curry in a tomato gravy. The fourth vegetarian dish was Sambhar, a spiced lentil dish with onions and tomatoes.
The three meat dishes were butter chicken, Kadai chicken (seasoned with the house masala and served with onions, bell pepper and tomatoes) and chicken legs that had been cooked in the tandoori oven.
For condiments, the buffet featured two chutneys, tamarind and coconut, and a cooling raita (a yogurt-based condiment/side dish that pairs well with spicier dishes). I only tried the coconut chutney, but I could have eaten it with a spoon, it was so good. (And I did.)
The house brings each table its own basket full of hot naan, and I have to say that this simple bread was one of my favorite things about the meal. It was hot and fresh, and long after I was done with the buffet food, I sat at my table and kept compulsively eating the bread. It was perfect. There was also bread of sorts on the buffet -- a tangy pakora fritter made with chickpea flour, spinach and onions, fluffy like a thick white pancake. It was good, but not in the same league as that hot naan.
For dessert, the buffet had a mango fruit custard that was so thin I'm not sure why it's called custard. The other dessert was the one I went for -- my favorite Indian dessert, kheer, which is a rice pudding made with whole milk, rice, cardamom, sugar, nuts and raisins.
This was disappointing for a couple of reasons. One is just personal preference. The kheer was made with vermicelli, which is not unusual but not what I'm used to. I prefer short- or medium-grain rice so the grain doesn't overwhelm the rest of the dish.
The other reasons for my disappointment probably have to do with the fact that this was a buffet. The Taj kheer had plenty (too much) vermicelli, but I really had to dig around to find any nuts (they used cashews, but you can also use almonds), and I don't think I found a single raisin. Maybe they were all taken by earlier visitors to the buffet.
Taj has a fridge filled with Indian beer and colas, including the ubiquitous (in India) Thumbs Up. They also sell house-made mango lassis from the fridge for about $3.
The staff of GO anonymously samples meals for about $10.