GEORGE F. LEE / GLEE@STARBULLETIN.COM
Mixed Vegetable Masala, left, and Tandoori Chicken are among the specialties at Café TajMahal on Waialae Avenue.
Cafe TajMahal worthy of its name
Years ago, travel for me meant going out in search of the nearest Indian restaurant as soon as I hit the ground. It's one of my favorite cuisines, and though it's still in short supply in Honolulu, we actually have options these days. You can now add one more, Cafe TajMahal in Waialae at the base of St. Louis Heights.
I've said before that I hate this potentially deadly intersection. Still, I risked my life three times in six days to eat at the restaurant. Da food is ono.
If the cuisine seems familiar, it's because Cafe TajMahal's co-owner Kabir Chowdhury was a partner and chef at Maharani. The experience was instructive in his knowing what works with a Western audience, and, just as at our Asian restaurants, what works is chop suey variety, so you'll see a mix of northern- and southern-style dishes, Punjabi mixed with Goan cuisine. It's heaviest on Northern Indian fare such as the naan bread, vindaloo, tandoori and kebab dishes influenced by Middle Eastern cuisine, as well as Bengali cuisine to the Northeast. Chowdhury grew up on the Bengali dishes of Bangladesh, as well as his mother's native Calcutta fare. Chowdhury's wife, Hosneara Nitu, is his partner in the restaurant and handles most of the cooking.
Whether the food is from the north or south, it's all delicious to the point I believe everyone should love it. Realistically, this is not to be expected of people who do not eat vegetables, do not like the taste of exotic spices, cannot fathom a world beyond teriyaki or tonkatsu sauce, or who consider a single drop of Sriracha sauce to be a fire hazard. If this is too much, I don't see how they could tolerate flavors of cumin, chilies, nutmeg, tamarind, cloves, cardamom and more, combined into single dishes.
I can barely talk when eating this food because my brain automatically tries to sort through the complex and well-balanced flavors as they bounce off the tongue. It's intoxicating, almost hallucinogenic.
GEORGE F. LEE / GLEE@STARBULLETIN.COM
Kabir Chowdhury and wife Hosneara Nitu are the owners of Café TajMahal.
A vegetarian appetizer ($9.99) includes an assortment of two papadams, deep-fried samosas filled with potatoes and peas, and vegetable pakoras. You can slice them open and see the mustard seeds, fennel seeds with their sweet licorice scent, and black kalonji seeds bursting with peppery, oniony flavor with an herbaceous hint of oregano. In addition to the gastronomic value of these ingredients, these seeds are packed with essential oils, vitamins and minerals conducive to good health.
Whole cardamom pods and pieces of cinnamon sticks are also cast into vegetarian dishes to impart their flavor, such that even the most adventurous diners must be aware of what they're biting into. When you mistake a cardamom pod in a vegetable korma curry of cauliflower and potatoes ($10.99) for a pistachio or pea, for instance, biting into it will come as a shock. Similarly, that piece of cinnamon looks just like a piece of eggplant skin in eggplant shish korma, and while I avoided biting it, I did scoop some of the shredded, baked eggplant out from its hollow, and well, there's a reason cooking with Indian spices is a balancing act. Pure cinnamon is intense!
Saag aloo of stewed potatoes and spinach offers a reminder that this is one place where you can stick to a vegetarian diet without feeling you're making a sacrifice.
It would take a long time before I get to sample everything on the menu, but the karahi fish ($15.50) is destined to be one of my favorites: basa fillet, a white fish sautéed with onions, tomatoes, onion and green chili.
For a taste of the south, there is coconut rice stirred with homemade ghee and sweetened with shredded coconut and raisins and Goa shrimp sautéed in a red coconut curry sauce.
Lamb appears frequently, and I prefer the curry and stewed lamb dishes to the drier, and pricier, boti kebabs ($17.99). The seekh kebabs ($18.99) of minced lamb fared somewhat better, especially when drizzled with the accompanying cilantro-yogurt sauce.
Indian desserts tend to be heavy and treacly, but I find the halva to be the perfect final touch. Surprise yourself with the carrot halva ($3.99). Who knew eating a root vegetable could feel so decadent?
One thing you don't want to do here is bring a first date. The fluorescent lighting is so garish as to be painful. I've already suggested they remove one of the bulbs from each fixture. Hopefully, that will work.