Cafe Society

Stuff and Naan Sense

India's Shah Jahan built the Taj Mahal for his wife--sorry, for his favorite wife--in the mid-1600s. But while the ornate mausoleum in Agra has since become the ultimate symbol of opulence, in Persian the words "Taj Mahal" simply mean "the best of buildings."

Denver's Taj Mahal, however, may be in the worst of buildings--at least when it comes to restaurant longevity. Over the past dozen years, this 17th Avenue address has been home to countless eateries, from Spanish to Chinese to Italian to bar-food American. Some opened and closed so fast that people in the neighborhood didn't even know the place had changed hands. One incarnation, the tapas-serving Majorca, tried to rid the site of its evil spirits--there's been talk that the spot is haunted--by performing an exorcism. But despite the best efforts of the Mudmen, a performance-art group that cavorted nakedly about, Majorca soon gave up the ghost.

When they took over this space four months ago, the new owners, who also own a Taj Mahal in Westminster, inherited a more substantial problem than spirits: the skeleton of the structure itself, which makes for a difficult restaurant layout. They've tried to solve it by making the ground floor a bar and using the second level, complete with attractive deck, as the dining room. Unfortunately, the bi-level setup can be jarring on weekends, when there's a crowd imbibing on the first floor. Potential diners coming through the front door are met by the whacking sound of pool games, a blaring television and raucous good cheer, then are transported upstairs to the calm sounds of sitar music wafting through a dining area turned out elegantly--if not quite as sumptuously as the Shah's original--in dark, soothing burgundy tones dotted with white tablecloths and waiters in black bow ties.

The atmosphere is more sophisticated than the food. The fare here is well-spiced, straightforward and simple--and, in the evening, way overpriced for what you get. The $5.95 lunch buffet, with its generous sampling of healthy, tasty dishes, is a far better bet, even if the line of chafing dishes looks out of place in these stylish surroundings.

The buffet begins with an endless supply of Taj Mahal's impeccable naan. This soft Indian bread is made from white flour and leavened with a natural yeast called khamir; the batter is then moistened on one side and stuck to the side of the tandoor oven, where it cooks in minutes and is lifted out with a metal spike. The resulting puffy, chewy texture is perfect for scooping up the sauces that form the foundation for much of India's cookery. And since just about everything on the buffet featured a sauce of some sort, we had a good excuse to keep going back for more naan.

Manager Surinder Gidha says Taj Mahal tries to offer two meat and four vegetable dishes on its buffet, along with a rice, the naan, a typical Indian salad bar and dessert. The day we tried it, the vegetable selections included tarka dall, a semi-puree of lentils cooked with onions, garlic, tomatoes and ginger; alu gobi, cauliflower and potatoes in a thin currylike sauce; channa masala, chickpeas swimming in cumin-heavy masala (the word for the spice mixtures used in Indian cooking); and alu saag, a heavenly spinach-and-potato mixture that would transport any creamed-spinach fan to nirvana. The buffet also offered a dell soup of lentils pureed with other vegetables in a strongly spiced broth, as well as a tomato-based curry teeming with adorably uniform kofta, addictive little meatballs made from ground lamb. All of these dishes were expertly spiced and deftly executed. So was the sauceless tandoori chicken, a model example of the reddish-orange-dyed bird that's cooked in a barrel-shaped oven. (The test of a tandoori chef is his ability to pluck the food out at precisely the right time, since the charcoal-fired oven has no temperature controls.)

The salad was indeed a typical Indian version--typical, that is, for the boring American takes on Indian food--with the usual pile of iceberg lettuce topped by shredded carrots and cucumbers and a tangy yogurt dressing. But the rice pudding, agreeably rich and unusually creamy, was far from ordinary; sprinkled with almonds and pistachios, this dessert reached a royal status.

It was a good thing the buffet involved a lot of self-service, because our waiter came off more goofy than helpful. He'd pretend not to understand us and then laugh as we labored to explain ourselves--it was funny the first ten times--and would generally cut up every time he stopped by, which was often on this uncrowded Saturday afternoon.

When we returned for dinner one weeknight, the dining room was no more crowded. This time, though, it was a relief to see Goofy; the first fellow we'd encountered had a tough time bringing us two beers, and it was a miracle we got our basket of pappadum, crispy lentil-flour wafers that came with excellent tamarind and mint chutneys. But our waiter was still up to his old tricks. For example, when I asked him about an entree's preparation, he replied with a grin, "You know, it's in a sauce."

Still, he was right to steer us to an appetizer of Taj kabobs ($6.25). Big chunks of chicken and lamb had been marinated in a garlic-touched, vinegar-laced marinade before being baked in the tandoor, which gave each piece rich, crunchy edges. The meat's flavor was sweetened by green peppers and onions, and since the whole deal arrived sizzling on the platter it had been cooked on, the dish stayed hot as we gamely struggled through its ample portion.

In contrast, the entrees were downright puny. And not only were the shrimp vindaloo ($11.95) and chicken tikka masala ($10.95) overpriced for their pathetically meager size, but what little we got wasn't particularly good. Vindaloo is known for its intense chile heat, acidulated with vinegar or tamarind; the combination can be so potent that in India it's usually made with a strong meat, such as duck or game, that can stand up to the fire. Here, however, the few shrimp and couple pieces of potato were more than capable of holding their own in the sauce, even though the waiter had promised a "fiery hot dish." Even less potent was the masala. Despite our waiter's assurance that it was a house specialty--we'd asked him to recommend the best dishes, and he'd told us this was a personal favorite--there was nothing special about the bland, tomatoey base except the tandoor-baked chicken in it. And the four or five chunks of that didn't add up to a quarter of a bird.

The lunch buffet is clearly Taj Mahal's passage to India. Otherwise, ghost or no, dinner's high price and low quality are enough to scare any customer away.

Taj Mahal, 777 East 17th Avenue, 863-8888. Hours: 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m., 5-10 p.m. daily.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Kyle Wagner
Contact: Kyle Wagner