You can still come to this little strip mall for Indian food, but it will no longer be at the Taste of India. Apart from a fresh coat of salmon pink paint on the walls, and some stunning Indian artifacts, little seems changed within, but these days it's home to The Great Maharaja, with a chef (formerly of Water Lily) whose talents raise it to the top tier of Indian restaurants. The prices may be Indian restaurant standard, with most entr©es from $7. 99 to $12.99, but the food is anything but standard.
The aloo tikki chatt is an Indian street snack that, even at its simplest, has almost always been good, wherever I've had it, but this is the most elegant take on the dish I've ever seen -- potato patties stuffed with diced veggies and cloaked in a silken coriander-spiked tamarind and yogurt sauce ($3.99). It's one of the city's greats.
The other sampled appetizers aren't as opulent, but they are delicious. Paani puri (a.k.a. gol gappe), for instance, are hollow pastry spheres filled with bits of potatoes, chickpeas and spicy liquid, which won't spill out if you carefully pop each one whole into your mouth. Papri chat is a textural delight of crisp pastry chips, chickpeas and potatoes mixed with a yogurt-tamarind sauce (each $3.99).
To do justice to the menu would take several visits, especially since it lists a number of entr©es I haven't seen elsewhere. One of them, the gosht Hyderabad, might just have been the best curry I've ever eaten -- yogurt-and-spice marinated chunks of boneless, fork-tender lamb in a dark, sumptuous sauce that yielded bits of minced lamb as well. At least it was the first time I had it; on a return visit it was less complex and merely delicious.
Another rare highlight was nargasi kofta, in which hard boiled eggs (according to the menu) are coated with minced lamb. Actually the minced lamb turned up as part of the curried onion sauce, but never mind, it was still wonderful. Lamb and chicken are the only meats served here (no goat or beef), and halal meats will be available if requested in advance.
They also do remarkably well with seafood. Tawa sizzled tiger prawns were plump and juicy in a velvety onion gravy, and the Goan fish curry was another revelation, in a mild, coconutty onion sauce that didn't obliterate the delicate flavour of the fish.
There was the occasional rarity among the vegetable dishes as well. Kashmiri dum aloo, for instance: i.e. potatoes stuffed with wee bits of raisins and cooked in a sauce that was red from tomatoes and red hot from chili, but tamed a little by yogurt. Another stunner was the slow-cooked, slightly creamy dal makhni black lentils and red kidney beans, which sparkled with flavour. But the more familiar standards were equally well prepared: smoky eggplant bharta cooked almost to the melting stage with onions and tomatoes, redolent of ginger and garlic; and bhindi massala okra in perfectly textured small chunks (i.e., not a trace of stickiness) in a cilantro-flavoured onion-tomato sauce.
There are several kebabs as well. The ground lamb seekh kebabs were bland by comparison with the others, but yogurt-marinated chicken drumsticks, the boneless marinated lamb and the fine quality, mildly seasoned shrimp were splendid ($8.99 to $10.99). Those who have trouble making up their minds could order the mixed (five) kebab platter ($14.99).
One of my acid tests is biriyani, which far too often turns out to be less interesting than it sounds. Not our Maharaja Special, though, which sailed through nicely, with a huge mound of oddly pale orange, but moist, savoury basmati rice generously fleshed out with tiger prawns, chicken and lamb ($13.99).
Entr©es are served in charming and deceptively small brass pots, which contain more than you might expect, and if you ask to have your choices not served all at once, they won't be. The plain naan was disappointing -- neither puffy nor chewy ($1.99), but the potato-stuffed aloo kulcha bread was wonderful ($3.99). Some interesting chutneys are included -- among them the excellent, fresh-tasting and not too fiery mint -- and the yogurt raita was top-notch. And I still dream of the gajar halwa, a sensational warm carrot pudding ($4.99).
The all-you-can-eat buffet was also good and good value at $10.99, either at lunch (Monday to Friday), or at dinner (every day). Choices vary from day to day, but those I remember from my visit were the mini-samosas, crunchy pakora fritters, rich-flavoured rogan josh, chickpea curry, butter chicken and tandoori chicken (which didn't taste tandoori-baked but was moist and good). Naan is included and so are some good desserts, gajar halwa among them -- served cold (unlike the la carte version), but still lovely.
The spicing is as hot as you want it to be -- medium won't clear your sinuses, but if it does, you can cool your palate with a smooth and refreshing yogurt-based lassi, or with one of the Indian beers. The staff are attentive, courteous and constantly solicitous without being intrusive.
To see the location of this restaurant as well as others reviewed in the Winnipeg Free Press, please see the map below or click here.
Restaurants marked with a red flag were rated between 0.5 to 2.5 stars; yellow flags mark those rated between 2.5 to 4 stars; and green flags mark those rated rated 4.5 to 5 stars. Locations marked with a yellow dot were not assigned a star rating.