We were in a hurry on a recent weeknight and aiming for a quick bite before heading in separate directions.
But the authentic and genuinely good Indian food at the Taj Mahal restaurant on Jay Street caused us to shift gears and linger a little longer than we had planned so we could savor the experience.
The restaurant, across the street from City Hall, offers a luncheon buffet on weekdays and is popular with downtown workers. There’s no workaday scramble in the evening, however, and the service and ambiance are warm and inviting and the food is exceptionally good.
For almost three years, the Taj Mahal has been operated by Mohammed and Shammi Waheed, husband and wife who are natives of southern India. He praises her for her culinary skills and tells how she learned to cook from the older women of their village after she married him at a young age.
LAMB AND CHICKEN
Knowing that Beverly would be likely to order lamb, I checked out the chicken dishes and settled quickly on the Chicken Tikka Masala ($9.99), boneless Tandoori-style chicken served in a rich sauce of tomato and cream.
WHERE: 118-120 Jay St., Schenectady; 370-3664; www.tajmahalindianfood.com
WHEN: 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Monday-Friday lunch buffet; 4-9 p.m. Monday-Saturday dinner
OTHER INFO: All major credit cards accepted; handicapped accessible
White rice is served separately and you spoon the sauce and chicken over it. The flavors are subtle and delightful, a little like a rich and thick tomato bisque with tender chunks of chicken as a bonus.
Beverly found her lamb under the “Hyderabadi Biryani” section of the menu, which describes it as “a classic dish of aromatic basmati rice, simmered with deep fried onions, yogurt, ginger, garlic and biryani spices.” She chose the Lamb Biryani ($13.99) and was most pleased with her selection.
The rice was studded generously with chunks of tender lamb and aromatic from the spices which included alluring garam marsala and turmeric. A little dish of raita — a condiment made with yogurt with crushed garlic, minced veggies, mint and coriander — was served alongside the biryani to add another level of flavor.
Both entrées were generous and we took home part of each, along with some of the basket of naan that I had ordered.
I had ordered the naan — Indian flat bread baked in a tandoor — because I believe it’s wrong to eat Indian food without it.
The Aloo Naan ($2.99) was especially good, warm bread stuffed with lightly spiced mashed potatoes. (I know that sounds like a mashed potato sandwich, but it’s really good.)
Before our entrées arrived, we shared a bowl of lentil soup ($3.99) that was a delightful starter. Besides lemon (there was a wedge of it floating in the soup) and coriander, the soup was flavored with fresh garlic and roasted cumin, according to our server, Monica. The result was a delicious blend of subtle and sharp notes amid the savory legumes and broth. Paired with the naan, it could have been a satisfying meal without the main events.
The Taj Mahal offers an assortment of appetizers — samosa, pakora and aloo tikki (deep fried potato and herb patties) for $3.99.
If you like spicy food, there are Vindaloo dishes — like Shrimp Vindaloo, which is shrimp with tomatoes and potatoes laced with hot spices ($13.99).
There are also the traditional tandoor dishes — like Chicken Tandoori ($11.99) — which refers to food cooked in a clay oven. The choices include chicken, lamb and shrimp. Some of the dishes are baked, some feature marinated meat that is broiled with spices.
Vegetarian choices (all $8.99) include Daal Makhani, which is lentils simmered with onions, tomatoes and ginger; Aloo Gobi, which is potatoes and cauliflower in a mild sauce; and Channa Masala, which is chickpeas cooked with spices in a tomato-based gravy.
We were impressed enough by the food at the Taj Mahal to ask about dessert. Our host suggested rice pudding and brought us two little dishes — creamy, sweet and topped with a sprinkle of ground cardamon, a fitting end to a memorable meal.
Our experience at the Taj Mahal was entirely pleasant, and we’re looking forward to dining there again soon. Our tab for tea, soup, two entrées and dessert came to $47.91 with tax and tip.
Mohammed Waheed gives his wife, Shammi, credit for the cuisine at the Taj Mahal. He says the food is good because she creates her own spices — meaning she grinds, roasts and mixes them — and he believes that’s unique in the Capital Region. Some of those spices, like the roasted cumin that flavors her lentil soup, are available for purchase at the restaurant, along with other unusual ingredients like preserved and pickled lemons.