Inconsistent; the better dishes are inferior to those served at big-city Indian cafes.
Seemingly uninterested, performing basic service tasks but little more.
Best deal is the $7.95 all-you-can-eat luncheon buffet.
Simple but colorful décor, with wall hangings and Indian background music.
|-||- Rate It!|
A = Outstanding
B = Very Good
C = Average
D = Below Average
F = Poor
|Restaurant facts (updated: 4/13/12)|
|Hours:||Lunch 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. every day; dinner 5 to 9 p.m. Monday to Thursday, 5 to 9:30 p.m. Friday to Sunday|
|Reservations:||Large groups only|
|Credit cards:||MasterCard, VISA|
$$ of $$$$ What's this?Lunch buffet $7.95; dinner appetizers $4.50 to $6.95, entrees $10.95 to $15.95, Friday night buffet $13.95
|$ =||under $12|
I ate last week at a wonderful Indian restaurant in metropolitan Portland. It served to remind me how much I enjoy really good South Asian cuisine.
It’s not that Bend’s Taj Palace doesn’t fill a niche in Central Oregon. Pullareddy “Reddy” Lakireddy and his family — wife, mother, son, daughter and sister-in-law, occasionally assisted by a brother from Southern California — have done a solid job since opening in early 2003.
As Oregon’s only Indian restaurant east of the Cascade mountains, to the best of my knowledge, the Taj is a solitary purveyor in this region of the food and culture of the world’s second most populous nation. The simple but colorful decor, the aromas of turmeric and coriander wafting from the kitchen and the music of sitar and tabla playing in the background offer a peek into an exotic land on the other side of the world.
But this is not top-flight Indian cuisine, as I was reminded by my visit to Hillsboro’s tiny but authentic Chennai Masala restaurant. On two separate visits to Taj Palace, both before and after my Portland-area experience, I found that nothing in Bend compared.
Mood and service
Taj Palace is a spacious restaurant, perhaps better known for its daily luncheon buffets and monthly belly-dancing performances than it is for its multi-course “thali” dinners. Most patrons seem to prefer tables on a raised platform above the buffet area than at a booth or table on the main floor. But no matter where they sit, they are immersed in Little India.
Shiny foil ornaments, red, green and gold in color, hang from the ceiling to celebrate Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights. Never mind that it’s still seven months away, in November.
Paintings of scenes from the country’s folklore and photographs of scenic locations — including the namesake Taj Mahal palace — hang on the walls. It seems a shame that the lower sections of the walls are covered with dreary wood paneling that covers up the far more interesting red brick rising above it.
There’s not much to the service. A family member will tell you to “sit anywhere,” deliver a pitcher of water and menus if you haven’t headed straight for the buffet, and ask if you want anything to drink. Even when I have come for a more elaborate dinner — “thali” includes soup, rice, naan bread, a main entree, a vegetable curry and dessert — no one has ever checked back to see if I’m satisfied with my meal.
Indeed, I may not be. While I like the mildly piquant spice level (hot sauces are available for diners who need a boost), I find myself unimpressed with many of the foods I’ve eaten at Taj Palace.
Spinach-and-onion pakora, an appetizer deep-fried in chickpea flour, was too heavy for my taste. Fried vegetables — okra with peas and potatoes, cabbage with carrots and onions — seemed greasy, or at least oily.
A yellow-lentil dhal with spinach and eggplant was pasty and uninviting in flavor. Zucchini masala was overcooked.
But a couple of saag (creamed spinach) plates — saag paneer with squares of cottage cheese, vege saag with mushrooms, cauliflower and tomatoes — were very palatable. And a savory mushroom curry with button mushrooms, peas, onions, tomatoes and chickpeas in a brown sauce were good as well.
I also liked two soups that I sampled. Sambar is a thick and peppery lentil-vegetable soup with onions, tomatoes and carrots. Rasan is a spicy curried soup with tamarind, along with onions, green peppers and whole chilies. Both are a better choice than the one-time British colonial standard, mulligatawny, which I did not see offered here.
Chicken and meats
In southern India, vegetarianism is the norm. In northern India, meats are more widely consumed. And chicken, as often as not, is the meat of choice. I have had the opportunity to taste five different chicken dishes at the Taj, with varying results.
My favorite is chicken makhani, tender chunks of boneless chicken cooked in a creamy, butter-based tomato sauce.
Tandoori chicken was a big disappointment. I normally like chicken and other dishes that are marinated in yogurt and herbs, then baked in a tandoor, a traditional Indian clay oven. Here, on both of my recent visits, I found it tough and overcooked. And that also affected the chicken tikka masala, a dish that features tandoori chicken in a creamy tomato-and-coriander sauce.
Chicken karai, whose meat was cooked with bell peppers and onions, was tasty enough. But chili chicken, breaded and fried, was bland and flavorless.
Among other meat dishes, lamb vindaloo was excellent. Tender, boneless pieces of meat were cooked with potatoes in a mildly spicy brown sauce. Raita, a homemade yogurt with minced onions, cucumbers and tomatoes, perfectly complemented the lamb.
A pork curry, served with potatoes in an orange sauce, was decent. But kima curry, featuring ground beef with peas and onions, reminded me of taco filling from a drive-thru.
Bread and rice
The best thing from the Taj’s tandoor was the warm naan bread. A yeasty flatbread, it is excellent with the hummus-like coconut chickpea dip offered as a condiment.
I prefer the restaurant’s biryani rice — seasoned with yellow saffron and tossed with peas, carrots, corn and beans — instead of plain white rice.
My favorite dessert was rice kheer, a warm pudding made with coconut milk. But I have friends who prefer the Taj’s mango custard with apple slices. And for those without a sweet tooth, orange slices and cantaloupe chunks are also available for dessert.
The restaurant has a full bar, but I find the best beverage to wash down spicy Indian food is an Indian beer. Three different import brands are offered.
Hola! opened its new downtown Bend restaurant and lounge April 5 with an abbreviated menu that emphasizes small plates, including pupusas (stuffed Salvadoran flatbread) and several versions of seafood ceviche. The popular Peruvian-Mexican group has taken over the ground-floor space in St. Clair Place that previously was the Tart Bistro. Open 11 a.m. to midnight every day. 920 N.W. Bond St., Bend; 541-728-0069, www.holabend.com.
Another Mexican restaurant, La Rosa, announced plans to establish a second store in Brookswood Meadow Plaza on Bend’s south side. Owner Carol DeRose said she projects a fall opening. 19530 Amber Meadow Drive, Bend; www.larosabend.com.
Boken has signed a lease to expand into the adjacent downtown Bend space formerly held by the Madhappy Lounge. Justin Cook, owner and executive chef of Boken and Kanpai, said the expansion will enable his pan-Asian bistro to add private tatami dining rooms and a large bar. Cook indicated he hopes to open the space — called Dojo — by late June. 852 N.W. Brooks St., Bend; 541-706-9091, www.bokenbend.com.