Chef Khan, a Montreal fixture, excels at rich Kashniiri sauces and the tandoor

Ashok Chandwani

The Gazette, Montreal, Saturday, June 2, 1997 - Arts & Entertainment - Dining out . . .

When Le Taj was last reviewed in this space, in 1985, Helen Rochester called it "chic and elegant." Twelve years and major renovations later, elegance is still the Taj's forte. Dining here is akin to eating in the middle of a museum displaying Indian and Tibetan arts and crafts. Three huge, intricately fashioned panels that were part of the Indian pavilion at Expo 67 dazzle you with their imposing craftsmanship as you enter. Other wails and raised spaces, painted old rose or eggshell, display exquisitely carved wooden screens, sculptures and masks. There is also a boutique, with entrances from the street and restaurant, that diners can browse in or buy from. While the restaurant moderated prices and added low-priced vegetable dishes like bhindi (okra) masala a couple of years ago, its strength really lies in grilled, meat and poultry tandoori dishes, buttery, cream-rich sauces and freshly baked flatbreads. The last are consistently good, often inspired, reflecting the individual nuances of chef Kala Khan and his colleagues, Sharif and Salim. Khan, a fixture in the city's upscale Indian restaurants since Expo 67, is a master of rich Kashmiri sauces-and the tandoor: the north Indian, charcoal-fired clay oven. Two of these huge ovens are housed in a glass cage in one corner of the restaurant, giving diners a chance to observe as Khan or one of his associates grill succulent chicken and lamb or bake nans in the ovens' fierce heat. Many are the occasions that I have savoured the marinated lamb chops that emerge from these tandoors and are served on a sizzle platter in a heady cloud of spicy aromas. Four, sometimes five, chops arrive - making the price, $16.95, suddenly reasonable and the dish enough for two. Add a vegetable dish or two and a couple of nans, and you have a dinner as affordable as one you might construct from lower-priced grill or curry dishes. I guess it was this knowledge of the chops (the menu doesn't specify quantities) that must have been at the back of my mind when I suggested Khan's makhani prawns ($16.95) to a friend on a recent night. Using the chop principle, we also ordered the okra ($4.95) and the seasonal vegetable curry ($4.95). All to be accompanied by a plain nan ($1.50) and a vegetable nan ($3.25). Less for the sake of hunger than for the review (and the inevitable doggie bag), we chose onion bhaji ($2.95) and aloo tikke ($3.25) for starters. The bhaji, deep-fried roundish balls of a split-pea flour batter studded with onions, we found to be doughy, the batter and onions both lacking crispness. We were far more impressed by the aloo tikke, two latke-like, deep-fried, flat croquettes made from coarsely mashed potato spiced with cumin and red chili powder, with dried mango powder adding a tart note. A wicked, green chutney made with fresh coriander, lime juice and green chills accompanied the tikke, giving them a searing kick you might want to be cautious about. The tikke, for my taste, are fine without such a hot sauce. My penchant for milder sauces was rewarded with the arrival of Khan's special shrimp in one of the new, dainty copper woks the Taj is now using to serve main courses. This is the sauce Khansahib excels at - a cholesterol cocktail of butter and cream gently infused with saffron, garlic and tomato and perhaps a whiff of cumin.
"Deee-luxe!" proclaimed my friend, licking the tasting finger she had just dipped into the sauce. Our only disappointment with this dish was the size and quantity of shrimp. The mediumsized shrimp were tender and juicy, but there were only six of them, making the price tag expensive. The price- quantity-value equation corrected itself with the vegetable dishes.

The okra sliced in tiny rounds, had been sauted and simmered in a thick coat of richly browned onions, garlic, turmeric, cumin and ground coriander seed, with a little red chili pepper thrown in to lift it to the medium heat level we had asked for. The same spices, though fewer onions, graced the seasonal vegetable curry, which on this night contained slices of fresh carrots, bite-size chunks of cauliflower and green peas.

The two nans were as fluffy and flaky as they have been for the past 12 years, with the vegetable one proving a winner for me with its stuffing of spiced potatoes and crisper surface.

For dessert we shared a kulfi ($2.95), a delectable, firm ice cream made from pistachio and cashew- flavoured milk patiently condensed over low heat.

Le Taj also offers a substantial all-you-can eat lunch buffet for $8.95 every day except Saturday.