Spice Island

dining_RoyalTajWhether it’s the lunch buffet or a selection from the extensive menu, Royal Taj offers vegetarians and carnivores exotic flavors

Mintel Market Research calls Indian food the fastest-growing ethnic cuisine, and those of us who have enjoyed the world of spices at Royal Taj for almost 20 years know why. For those who are not familiar with Indian food, the daily lunch buffet ($8.95) provides a broad introduction. Alternatively, at both lunch and dinner, the menu offers main course specialties both à la carte and served as a meal with rice, flatbread, yogurt sauce and salad.

Dal refers to the family of pulses from lentils to garbanzo beans, which are stewed in vegetarian curries and ground into high protein flour for breads and batters. Dal Makhni ($7.50/$10.50) is primarily urad dal, a small black-skinned bean with a white interior. This thick curry, the color of Texas chili beans, was flavored with whole and ground spices, and mildly piquant.

It is worth overlooking the military green color of Sag Paneer ($7.50/$10.50). Homemade Paneer, a fresh cheese that is pressed until as firm as tofu, was cooked with fresh spinach and spices, resulting in a creamy, exotically flavored stew.

Royal Taj’s clay oven tandoor is central to many of the restaurant’s dishes, and fills the air of the neighborhood with enticing aromas. Thin, circles of Garlic Nan ($2.25), a leavened flatbread dotted with bits of garlic and cilantro, are cooked stuck to the oven’s walls. Well-done Tandoori Chicken ($10.25/$12.95), marinated in yogurt and colored crimson from saffron and dried chilies, is skewered and suspended into the belly of the glowing cavern.

Chicken Makhanwala ($8/$11.50) in a velvety, pale peach curry features coconut, boneless tandoori chicken pieces, chili, and numerous herbs and spice seeds.

Indian condiments showcase the respect that Indian chefs hold for the entire palate. Dark, syrupy chutney mixes sour tamarind with sugar. Pickled raw carrots and ginger are at once sour and bitter. Bright green and very liquid mint chutney combines the herb’s fragrance with hot chilies and cilantro. Royal Taj also makes the chunky, sweet, jam-like mango chutney Westerners are most familiar with. And the yogurt raita, here thin and mixed with cucumbers, eases any chili overindulgence.

Royal Taj, 270 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz, 427-2400. Beer and wine. Serving lunch and dinner daily, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m.

I was saddened by the letter announcing the demise of Gourmet Magazine. I will miss the well-written stories of international culinary travel, the outstanding food photography and of course, the marvelous recipes.  According to Editor Ruth Reichl’s Twitter, she and her staff were stunned by the Oct. 5 announcement and given one day to clean out their offices. It was ironic that the brand’s new cookbook for sale over the holidays included a free subscription to the magazine, and although November’s issue had been their last, it was also jammed full with gift and renewal subscription offers.

Not to worry fellow foodies, all subscriptions will be transferred to sister magazine Bon Appétit.  Visit gourmet.com

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