This is a tale of two eateries.
Maharaja and India's share some owners, and their menus are identical. But that's where the similarities end. The food served at these Indian restaurants is as different as McDonald's is from Morton's--with the classy India's making hamburger of Maharaja.
The decade-old India's is owned by Kris Kapor, Jujhar Singh and Mohinder Singh (the Singhs are not related; theirs is a common Indian surname). Mohinder and Kapor, along with one of India's former cooks and one of its former waiters, own the seven-month-old Maharaja, which sits in the jinxed space once occupied by the Quorum and then occupied--briefly--by, first, China Cowboy, and later, the 15th Avenue Grill. For their new venture, the four partners photocopied India's menu, tried (and failed) to warm up the cavernous dining room, and sent out an announcement promising that Maharaja comes "from the same people who brought you India's."
It may be the same people, but it's not the same food. If these two restaurants are related, then Maharaja is the evil twin.
My introduction to India's doppelganger came at Maharaja's lunch buffet, a lame spread that's advertised as "22 items for $5.95" but fails to mention that those 22 items include lettuce, salad dressings, croutons and, by my count, the salt and pepper. The remaining items were a sampling of the more standard Indian dishes: dal (lentils), saag (creamed spinach), dry tandoori chicken in a nebulous curry, nan (flatbread), a potato-heavy vegetable curry, rice, chicken soup and kheer, a rice pudding that was old, gooey and tasteless. The other dishes were no better than the pudding: flat in flavor, with none of the intricate spices Indian food is known for.
Still, what can you expect from a buffet? On my second try, I fed a group of co-workers, who dove right into a lineup of ten entrees and two appetizers from Maharaja's regular menu. When everyone came up for air, the consensus was that everything tasted alike--and little tasted good. The nan ($1.75) was burned, which indicated an inexperienced--or inefficient--tandoori cook. Most telling, though, was that we didn't come close to finishing our food, and no one wanted the leftovers.
Only one dish managed to distinguish itself: the ticca saag ($11.95), cut-up tandoori chicken in creamed spinach. Unlike the buffet bird, this chicken was moist, and the spinach (in India the cook would have used amaranth, a relative) had a good texture and was generously spiced with what tasted like garam masala (coriander, cumin, cloves, black pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg, mace and cardamom), one of the myriad spice mixtures that most people in this country refer to by the blanket term "curry."
The rest of the dishes, however, tasted as though someone had thrown together the same basic ingredients in haphazard combinations. The shrimp vindaloo ($11.95) carried an odd taste reminiscent of French's mustard--instead of the subtle mustard oil used on India's western coast--and had none of the "hot, spicy curry" promised on the menu. The akbar boti ($13.95) was supposed to feature tandoori-cooked shrimp with tandoori lamb and bell peppers, but the four shrimp tasted just like the vindaloo shrimp, and there was exactly one piece of lamb included. Fourteen bucks for this?
Of course, Indian food has a reputation for being expensive, ostensibly because it contains so many pricey spices. But some Indian restaurants take advantage of this perception, and I'd have to list Maharaja among them. Although the chicken dishes bore heavyweight prices, they were light on both meat and seasonings. The shahi korma ($9.95) did contain almonds and raisins, but I couldn't find one cashew, and the sauce didn't taste of the traditional nut puree. In fact, it didn't taste of anything. Ditto for the chicken noorani ($10.95), purportedly a "traditional curry" served over a "bed of ground lamb." But this bed was so tiny it wouldn't have held a baby hamster.
Most of the vegetarian entrees--dum aloo ($8.95), mattar paneer ($9.95), malai kofta ($9.95) and pakora curry ($9.95)--were pathetic variations on a curry theme, in which it didn't matter if the other ingredients were fried potatoes, homemade cheese or vegetables. Only the navarattan korma ($9.95) rose above blandness. An assortment of vegetables--green peppers, potatoes, peas, cauliflower--swam in a cream sauce studded with almonds, pistachios and cashews.
This Maharaja meal was one rough, pricey passage to India.
In stark, stark contrast are the meals I've enjoyed at India's. But this snug eatery, long the best Indian restaurant in town, is exceptional on its own merits and doesn't need comparisons to shine.
On a recent visit there, I found Indian food at its best: full of deep, complex flavor, so deep that it was impossible to pick out specific spices, so complex that the spice mixes had been orchestrated to draw out the other ingredients' agreeable characteristics. These curries were so distinctive that even when served simultaneously--as they are in India, with sometimes as many as ten curries in one meal--we were able to pick out each one by smell alone.
Although we'd ordered most of the same dishes we'd tried at Maharaja, they bore no resemblance to their poor relations. (India's charges a dollar more for several of the dishes, but they're worth every penny--and you couldn't pay me to eat at Maharaja again.) This kitchen turned out remarkable versions of the vegetarian dum aloo ($8.95), fried potato chunks in a comfortingly mellow curry; navarattan korma ($9.95), heavy with cashews, almonds and pistachios; mattar paneer ($9.95), creamy and refined, the peas and cheese coated with a rich sauce; and pakora curry ($9.95), its curd-textured base strongly laced with nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon and mace.
India's meat dishes were elaborate marvels. The chicken shahi korma ($10.95) and chicken saag ($11.95) both featured tender bits of bird in well-melded sauces; the chicken ticca saag ($11.95) and chicken noorani ($11.95) each boasted perfectly cooked tandoori meats, with chewy crusts on the outside and moist meat within. And in this noorani, the lump of ground lamb was actually large enough to be billed as a bed.
But there was no sleeping once India's shrimp vindaloo ($12.95) arrived. This dish was wake-up spicy and sported such a blend of chiles and roasted spices that it obviously had been made days ahead, which is how the mix achieves the rounded balance that makes vindaloo so popular.
As is India's. When we returned the place was packed, so we took our food to go. Back home, we dug into two huge appetizer samosas ($3), deep-fried pastry pockets filled with peas and potatoes, and followed them with two perfect entrees. The akbar boti ($14.95) featured impeccably tandoorized lamb and shrimp tossed with green peppers, and the mildly spicy curry in the aloo gobi ($9.95) had pleasantly permeated the cauliflower and potatoes.
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We finished off the meal--and ourselves--with excellent kheer ($3) and India's addictive cinnamon bread pudding ($3), so good for breakfast the next day.
There's simply no comparison between India's and Maharaja--even though Maharaja would have you believe there is. But the proof, as they say, is in the pudding.
India's, 3333 South Tamarac Drive, 755-4284. Hours: 11:30 a.m.-2:15 p.m., 5:30-9:30 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 11:30 a.m.-2:15 p.m., 5:30-10 p.m. Friday; noon-2:15 p.m., 5:30-10 Saturday; 5:30-9 p.m. Sunday.
Maharaja, 233 East Colfax Avenue, 832-4855. Hours: 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m., 5-9:30 p.m. Monday-Saturday.