Taj Mahal moves Indian cuisine west7/16/2014
Prodigal sons and daughters are returning to the Des Moines restaurant scene this year. Thu Phan and her family came back from a long trip to the desert and reopened their cutting edge Vietnamese café Pho All Seasons. David and Bonnie Bartels, the original owners of the pioneer restaurant Cosi Cucina bought the place they first opened 20 years ago. Rosa Martinez reopened La Rosa, the top tamale of the local scene. Now former Tandoor owner chef Sheik Naseem is back from the West Coast and opening Taj Mahal.
Taj Mahal’s inspiration includes the Punjab but also places further west. For instance, all food is Zabiha Halal. All dishes are made from scratch here, even the paneers, which begin as cow’s milk. My dinner began with a Roohe-Afzah ($1.25). This is a natural drink made with a blend of extracts from citrus, flowers and stone fruits. Sometimes called rose water, it’s served in water or milk. A mixed platter of pakoras included meats and vegetables coated in channa (chick pea flour) with coriander and deep fried. The pieces were served with chile powder of the plate so one could rub on as much heat as one likes. Potatoes, onions and cilantro were far more popular than the chicken breast pieces. I love when that happens, and it usually does in Indian restaurants. These pakoras were served with two dips, one sweet and based in tamarind, the other yogurt- and herb-based.
Samosas (Indian pierogis) also graced the appetizer menu, but we moved into the naans (flatbreads) as a second course. Usually south Asians use naan as a utensil to scoop up curries and other main courses. Sheik Naseem makes thin and decadent naans that deserve to be eaten alone. In fact, he confessed that his routine mid-day meal is “butter naan and tea.” A modern tandoori oven produces divine breads, baked on its walls. There are versions stuffed with minced chicken; well-seasoned potatoes; fresh chopped garlic; sugar, butter and seeds. My favorite though is onion naan, served divinely buttered with ghee. This is as good as naan gets. When Sheik Naseem first came to Des Moines, Tandoor was owned by doctors who insisted that canola and olive oils be substituted for ghee. Hopefully that era of fat paranoia has ended.
Taj Mahal’s tandoori menu ($9-16) included various lamb and chicken kebobs, differing mainly in marinades. All were cubed. All chicken was breast meat. This is Mughal cooking, a style invented for men who had thousands of servants to make life easier. Bone in chicken is cooked for the lunch buffet ($9) though. Curries ($8 -12) were more complex. Most were made with a combination of coriander, cardamon, cumin, cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg putting out whatever fire chile might try to start. Vegetable dishes included potato, spinach, okra, peas and cauliflower. Sauces used lots of ghee and tomato. Some used yogurt. Meats included lamb and chicken. Vegetable and meat combos mixed all the above.
A lamb and okra curry had fabulous flavor but again, the okra absorbed the process better than the meat. A butter chicken curry delivered a fabulous mix of tomato and ghee. A shahi paneer was a favorite, with fresh cheese cubes in a curry of tomatoes and almonds. Biryanis ($9-11) were offered, but curries came with large plates of Kashmiri rice, seasoned with Asian saffron. A mango custard seemed the most summer-like of desserts ($3-4).
Side Dishes Construction began to expand Manhattan Deli into the building to its east, the former Lot 33… Bruegger’s reopened in the skywalk. It had been closed since Younker’s fire… Johan Larsson’s new menu at Dish includes tuna crudo, blistered shishitos, lobster rolls and homemade ice creams. CV
Jim Duncan is a freelance writer who has penned nine different columns for Cityview and its sister publications beginning in 1987.Taj Mahal 2731 100th St., Urbandale 278-5813 Mon. – Sun. 11 a.m. – 2:30 p.m., Tues. – Sun. 5 p.m. – 9 p.m.