I recall an acquaintance long, long ago lamenting the dearth of Indian restaurants in Delaware. He had acquired a taste for the cuisine while sojourning in London, and, afterward, it was the thing he missed most about the city. The way he raved and pined and rhapsodized and otherwise carried on about lentils—of all things—it seemed that, in his estimation, no other food could compare. Perhaps it was the combination of nostalgia and the hunger of student poverty speaking, but when he was jonesing hard, the man could get downright morose. I had never seen anyone brood so because of food.
Now I get it. Since my introduction to Indian fare at a short-lived restaurant in downtown Dover more than 25 years ago—an epiphany—I have often felt the jones, so I have eaten at every Indian restaurant that has opened in Delaware since (save the new Indigo in Rehoboth). Among the meals I’ve enjoyed are two of the best things I have ever tasted: a sambal-like slurry of puréed chilis during that first meal, and a silky lamb khorma from a now-defunct restaurant in North Wilmington that set the standard for every other Indian meal I would ever eat.
Alas, I enjoyed that meal during the brief period that particular restaurant was good. Never again over the next several years did I have a dish that came close to that, even other meals of lamb khorma. And that has been the way of Indian restaurants here. The quality of food, in most of the restaurants that have survived, can vary wildly over time—I still cannot forgive the Cheez-Its that were passed off as cheese fritters in a chana papri chat 20 years ago—so the search for a consistently good place is a constant exercise.
With any luck, the search has ended at Taj Mahal Fine Indian Restaurant and Party Hall. How it had escaped my notice for more than a year I do not know, but that doesn’t matter now. All that matters is that the food lives up to my memory of the very best Indian meals I’ve enjoyed.
Navrata korma with a mango lassi; mixed tandoori.//Photo by Joe del Tufo
Like other places, Taj Mahal offers the usual meals of chicken, lamb, goat, fish and shrimp, and paneer (a non-melting homemade cheese) in the typical preparations: as spicy vindaloo, in tomato-rich jalfrazie with onions and peppers, creamy korma, the sautéed spinach called saag and others. It also offers favorite meats marinated and roasted in the clay oven called a tandoor, as well as starters such as samosas—fried dumplings stuffed with potatoes and mashed peas.
But Taj Mahal also offers a few surprises, such as an appetizer of mushrooms or cauliflower and mushrooms sautéed in garlic, hot peppers coated in chickpea flour and deep-fried, a hot-and-sour soup, a selection of dishes in the crepe called dosa and desserts such as rasmalai, balls of sweetened cheese served in cream sprinkled with pistachios. Taj Mahal earns extra points for offering a children’s menu, which features accessible dishes such as chicken tikka, as well as typical kid stuff like chicken nuggets and fried shrimp.
I’m no expert on Indian cuisine. Its history is too sweeping and nuanced, the combinations of ingredients—both the produce and the spices—are too regionally diverse, too complex. But I know what I like, so the first visit to Taj Mahal was less an exploration of the dishes that make it unique, more a test of how well it prepared some personal favorites.
We started with a sampler of appetizers. The samosa was crispy outside, its filling mildly seasoned with garam masala, a blend of ground cumin, coriander, cardamom, cloves, cinnamon or cassia, nutmeg and peppercorns. The pakora—a fritter of minced broccoli, cauliflower and other vegetables battered in chickpea flour—was delicious, especially when dipped in a green chutney of fresh chopped coriander and mint in lime. The homemade cheese called paneer is so mild, it needs a little help. Dusted in chickpea flour, fried and topped with onion chutney, it could almost be a meal. More chickpeas: A chilled appetizer of aloo papri chat combines them with diced potato and cubes of crispy paneer pakora in yogurt, finished with a drizzle of sweet tamarind chutney.
From left: Assorted vegetable appetizers as a sampler for two; assorted appetizers for a large party.//Photo by Joe del Tufo
The curries are where the kitchen really shines. Many are based on some combination of the garam masala spices with chilis, garlic, ginger, fenugreek, turmeric mustard seeds and other spices in various proportions—sometimes simmered in yogurt, sometimes in a clarified butter called ghee, but that’s not to say everything tastes the same. The results can be very different. We found the aromatic palak paneer of sautéed spinach to be almost creamy, the bhindi do pyaza of okra simmered with tomatoes, onions and garlic to have the richness of a sturdy ratatouille, and the lamb khorma most hearty, but subtly and sublimely seasoned. Was it as good as that lamb khorma from long ago? Nothing could be, but it was excellent just the same.
We enjoyed all with an unadorned naan, a bread baked by slapping the dough against the wall of the tandoor. It was as hot and light as any I’ve ever had.
Taj Mahal serves favorite beverages such as chai and the yogurt-based drink lassi, both sweetened and salted. There is no bar service, but guests are permitted to bring their own wine or beer.
Like so many great ethnic restaurants, decor does not seem to be a priority. The print of the Taj Mahal over the buffet line makes sense. We were puzzled by other prints, which depicted Mediterranean streetscapes, until the owner explained that they are vestiges of the previous restaurant. We were also puzzled to find that half the restaurant seemed closed. It turns out that side is the party hall, which is booked regularly. Take that as a statement about the quality of the food.
Those who are unfamiliar with Indian cuisine—or those who, like I, can never get enough of the variety—might try the Sunday dinner buffet, which offers more than 25 items. It is one of the best dining bargains going. Whether you are an Indian newbie or vet, it will not disappoint.
Taj Mahal Indian Restaurant and Party Hall
2314 Carpenter Station Road, Wilmington
475-0840 • tajmahalde.com
Prices: Appetizers, $2.99–$8.99; entrées, $9.99–$15.99; desserts, $2.99–$4.99
Recommended: Palak paneer, bhindi do pyaza