Taj Palace

6700 Middle Fiskville Rd., 452-9959
Daily, 11am-2pm, 5:30-10:30pm

Unceremoniously installed in an ordinary-looking strip mall, Taj Palace offers a bit of exoticism in north Austin. Taj Palace primarily serves North Indian Cuisine, which is usually milder than the fiery fare served in the south. Unlike its south Indian counterpart which relies more heavily on chilies, coconut, and vegetables, the hearty dishes of the north contain more meat and more cream, the result of a greater influence from the stock-raising, mountain cultures of central Asia. But perhaps northern Indian cuisine's greatest claim to fame is the tandoor oven. At Taj Palace, the tandoor forms an integral part of the restaurant's decor. Set behind a glass window, diners can gaze at the oven action while they tug at pieces of freshly cooked flatbreads and roasted tandoori meats.

Afraid of spicy food? The fare at Taj is decidedly mild. Try the Shahi Korma (with your choice of chicken, beef, or lamb, $9.50-$10.50), a cream curry made with ground almonds. Although it was perhaps too gentle for my macho palate, the thick yellow sauce thoroughly pampered the little morsels of chicken in a decadent almond bath. For those who prefer a bit more piquancy to their food, Taj Palace also offers the spicy vinegar Lamb Vindaloo. In general, though, I find that the vegetable dishes at Taj Palace outshine the meats. Don't miss the Aloo Baigan ($6.95), with chunks of potato and charred eggplant soaked in a tomato coriander sauce. The complex commingling of spices in this dish gives it a depth of flavor that is truly more than the sum of its parts.

In addition to dinners, Taj Palace offers a $6.99 lunch buffet every day. On a typical day, the buffet contains a wide variety of vegetable dishes, two or three meat dishes, pakore (fried chickpea fritters with vegetables), rice, and bread, not to mention two soups, chutneys, salad, and dessert. Placed in the center of the room, the buffet cart practically shimmers with color: orange, green, yellow, and red -- a veritable palette of earth tones characterizes Indian cuisine. On the day I went, the batter-coated fried Spinach Pakore were perfectly crispy, and the lentil Makni was rich and hearty, but it was the potato and green bean dish that really stood out. Gently cooked green bean segments blended together with chunks of potatoes to produce a dish that was lush and buttery, exploding with the warm tastes of roasted cumin and turmeric.

Unfortunately, however, I felt the Chicken Saag lacked bite. Basically a South Asian version of creamed spinach, the popular Saag of Indian cuisine typically contains ginger, peppers, and warm spices to give it savory yet zesty flavor. However, this Saag dish tasted a bit bland, the chicken limp and eggy. Another disappointment was the Beef Kadai, which consisted of somewhat tough strips of beef floating in a thin, uninspired sauce. All in all, I felt that meat items on the lunch buffet lacked the attention given to the à la carte dishes on the dinner menu.

The menu at Taj Palace is extremely detailed, providing background, explanations, and even a small glossary explaining the typical Indian spices. Such attention to basics bespeaks a heightened sensitivity to American tastes. And perhaps it is for this reason that some of the curries at Taj Palace are a little flatter than they should be. Taj Palace has been around longer than most of the other Indian restaurants in Austin, and it is a testiment to its willingness to accommodate non-Indian tastes that it has such staying power. But as local palates have become more accustomed to the complexities of Indian cuisine, some diners may find that they have outgrown the simplistic Taj Palace approach. Still, despite a few shortcomings, Taj Palace's lunch buffet remains one of the best and most satisfying deals in town. And if you've never tried Indian food before, Taj Palace is a good place to start. --Rachel Feit

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