The Joy of Vindaloo

Taj brings an enticing new Indian choice to town

In my hometown, a curry on a Saturday night was pretty much obligatory. So, too, I blush to tell, was boorish behavior in the curry house. If the restaurant's flocked fleur-de-lis wallpaper could only talk it would bear witness to some shocking scenes of vandalism, mob rule, and prandial disrespect, including a deeply regrettable incident involving Eric Clapton.

Had my generation of wayward youth been granted an Indian restaurant of the quality of the newly-opened Taj (8520 Kingston Pike), however, I suspect we wouldn't have got round even to removing the carved wooden flourishes from the backs of the chairs. This restaurant is an absolute joy, offering a first-rate selection of fresh, straightforward trusties from the subcontinent's culinary mainstream.

Appetizers are bewilderingly cheap. Three dollars will buy you either the chef's specialty soup—a coarse, warmly spiced medley of vegetable and chicken—or a brace of vegetable samosas; fluffy interiors, crispy exteriors, and totally grease-free. The meat samosas, heavy and a touch slippery, are slightly less successful, but all is forgiven when the poppadoms prove to be of that superior, cracked-pepper variety.

All these come in pleasing, abundant portions. Odd, then, given such largesse, that entrées are rather petite (and, at around $12, no longer a steal). I'm a firm advocate of the smaller portion, but a couple of these really need pumping up a bit. The malai kofta, often a reliable indicator of the overall quality of a restaurant, is aromatic and expertly balanced, but consists of just three smallish vegetable balls. Size aside, however, there's much to commend among the main courses, not least an immense haul of some 12 dishes for the vegetarian.

The jalfrezi curry is by no means dull, but it is unusually mild. One normally thinks of a jalfrezi as a lively hotspot halfway to Vindaloo, but here we have a clarion yet sparse blend of flavors—happy enough but perhaps not wholly memorable. The Vindaloo itself, though, is perfectly realized; it's strident without being harsh and has a lovely, booming warmth to complement its top-end notes.

Regardless of its questionable authenticity (and surely every dish is an artificial construct of one type or another), there's little more consoling than a chicken tikka massala. Taj's is a commendable, bright interpretation, sitting comfortably in the genre without iconoclastic pretensions. The surprise winner among the curries is the humble korma, a master class of precision spicing. Demur but faintly complex in a creamy, subtle sort of way, it's best enjoyed with the wonderful, thin peshwari naan.

But how does the place compare, you ask, to its Kingston Pike competitor Sitar? On décor and atmosphere, Taj knocks its rival into a cocked hat (although its bar is in completely the wrong place). As regards cuisine, Sitar has its fans, but I've always noticed a slight resistance on my part to its uncomplicated charms. Here, too, the challenger is one full league ahead.

And now, the Eric Clapton incident. By what was surely a million-to-one chance, the guitarist was dining in our very own restaurant one night. At the other end of the room were two associates of mine with girls whom they were desperate to impress. With the girls safely in the ladies' room, the lads seized their chance, approaching the legend to ask a quick favor. Later, when the party was preparing to leave, Clapton proved as good as his word. ‘John! Simon!' he called out, ‘I didn't recognize you there. Are we still going for that beer next week?' Came the reply: ‘Piss off, Eric, and stop following us around.'