Sunday, June 17, 2012

Taj Indian Cuisine

The Indian restaurant formerly known as Aroma has re-opened under new ownership as Taj Indian Cuisine. Hot Librarian, Little One and I attended their grand opening on Wednesday evening. The news for lovers of Indian food is mixed.

First the good news: Most of the former menu is intact, all the way down to the mini dosas and mini utthapams on the kids' menu, and the new owners bring some welcome new additions, with an emphasis on dishes from the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. The onion mirchi bhaji appetizer brings two whole hot green peppers, dipped in a chickpea flour batter and fried, then split and stuffed with a relish of red onion, lime juice and cilantro. Painfully delicious. Also tasty was the "Green Chicken". You know a preparation is authentic when a key vegetable ingredient is described on the menu using its Latin scientific name, which I've forgotten and therefore cannot look up. It doesn't matter. You don't need to know what it is to find it tasty.

HL and LO each ordered old favorites, and this is where the news gets more mixed. I should begin by stipulating that they each found their meals "tasty." Nonetheless, they were not quite up to the marks that Aroma had been hitting regularly. I hesitate to judge the dosa because it is a dish that can easily go awry when a kitchen is in the weeds--as they clearly were on this grand opening day. If it does not come off the flat top at just the right moment, it can either be wan and bland, if a bit undercooked, or crunchy yet unpleasantly flavored, if even slightly overcooked. This one was a bit undercooked. LO enjoyed it nonetheless. I sampled the sambar with it, and it was good--not as subtly spiced or generously festooned with vegetables as Aroma's, but fiery with dried red chilies and including the welcome addition of drumsticks. (A South Indian vegetable that eats like an artichoke leaf but tastes even better.) HL got the chole batura--the batura was thick and doughy, not airy and crispy, and the chickpeas with a bit too much tomato and not enough spicing in the gravy. Again, at least in the case of the batura, this could have been a result of the kitchen being in the weeds.

This is family-owned and -run restaurant, I suspect with the older generation working in the kitchen, and the younger, fluent-in-English generation working the front of the house. I have more than one soft spot for that kind of restaurant. Nonetheless, it could be the restaurant's Achilles heel if they don't work out the kinks in time. Clearly, there are some good cooks at work there. It is still the best Indian restaurant in Cumberland County. But good cooks do not necessarily make good restauranteurs, and even good restauranteurs don't necessarily find commercial success.

The opening day seemed to be going well for them in terms of numbers. The local South Asian community had come out in force, and many non-South Asian regulars of the old Aroma, like ourselves, showed up as well. But that also meant that the inexperienced front of the house staff was fumbling in so many textbook ways. So much so that I asked the young man who seemed to be in charge if this was the family's first restaurant--which it is. As the first-born son of an immigrant former-restauranteur, I more than sympathize. I remember the day I was in his shoes, a day that was only made tolerable by slow business and the fact that it was not my parents' first restaurant and I was mostly playing back-up to my consummately professional mother. So I offered him a lot of well-meaning, unsolicited advice, prefaced by the proviso that "I know exactly what you're going through."

Whether you were a fan of Aroma, or never got around to visiting, be sure to try Taj. Give them multiple chances. Tip generously and be open and honest with any criticism. Help them work out the kinks and find the success they deserve. You will be rewarded with delicious food.

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