Nan-made perfection

Le Taj turns down the heat; it's food is mildly spiced to appeal to all palates Ashok Chandwani Lesley Chesterman - Special to The Gazette . . . The main draw of Indian restaurants is undoubtedly cost. Indian food, like Chinese, is appealing since one can eat plenty for about as much as a good bottle of wine at an upscale French or Italian restaurant. Judging by the eclectic crowd at a recent visit to the restaurant Le Taj, I get the impression Indian food also appeals to adventurous gourmets. If there's one cuisine that's difficult to critique, it's Indian. Not only does the style of food vary from region to region on this vast subcontinent, but also it varies from household to household. Flavouring is based on personal preferences. The best Indian cooks will argue endlessly over the inclusion or exclusion of particular spices or herbs. If you've had the good fortune to enjoy a home- cooked Indian meal, eating Indian food in a restaurant probably will be a let down. Indian restaurants here, unless they specialize in a specific regional cuisine, tend to offer a "mainstream" menu designed to appeal to a non-Indian clientele. So what about the issue of authenticity? I wouldn't go so far as to visit an Indian restaurant with a copy of Indian Cuisine by Madhur Jaffrey to look up every dish and check the ingredients. On the other hand, a layer of grated Parmesan cheese over curry would certainly raise my eyebrows. Many cuisines have been bastardized outside of their home country (Italian being the worst, in my opinion). But I agree with the English restaurant critic A.A.Gill, who says, "If authenticity were an unbreakable rule, we'd still be holding sticks with lumps of gristle over open fires." Which probably explains why a lot of the Indian food in England, where it's almost a national cuisine now, is hard to find in India. To ensure that I don't foolishly order the wrong chutney I invite two friends, both excellent amateur cooks and true Indian food aficionados, to accompany me. The decor is elegant if spare, with intricate Hindu wood and plaster carvings adorning the high terra-cotta-coloured walls. Look to the back of the room and you'll see a glassed-in open kitchen, where a chef is usually at work rolling nans or pulling skewers out of the tandoor, that classic charcoal-fired, clay oven. There are signs of age - cracks in the wall plaster and crockery that's starting to look tired - but, nonetheless, Le Taj is generally considered to be the most beautiful Indian restaurant in town. I scan the menu, munching deepfried papadoms studded with cumin seeds, which I dip into a fresh- coriander chutney so fiery with green chiles that it makes my eyes tear. The menu is divided into standard soups, salads, appetizers, main courses, vegetable dishes and desserts, or you can choose a thali a traditional silver or stainless-steel tray that includes little bowls filled with vegetables, raita, dahl, pakoras, and a main-course curry of your choice. We start off with the mulligatawny soup. This version tastes and looks as though it were made with a beef broth, something that would not be the case in India. Later, on the phone, chef Sharif Khan explained that it is, in fact, made with a lentil broth. Interesting. Though the broth was hearty, it lacked the spicing to justify the name mulligatawny, which means "pepper water" in Tamil. A selection of tandoor-baked flat breads, the staple of North Indian restaurants, is outstanding. Buttery multi-layered parathas cut into wedges have a chewy, flaky texture. A large, tear-drop- shaped nan is puffy and has a delicious flavour, similar to a grilled pancake or popover. Pulling it apart and tasting it, one of my friends exclaims, "it's better than any nan bread I've ever eaten in India." Next up is a platter of assorted appetizers. I taste cinnamon and cloves in the seekh kabab, a tandoor-roasted cylinder of minced lamb. Another spicy appetizer, onion pakoras, has a gentle onion flavour, the chickpea-flour batter forming a light, crispy crust. The deepfried potato patties called aloo tikke and the potato-and-pea-filled samosas are surprisingly ordinary. I dip them into the assorted condiments of pickled carrots, yogurt-and-mint sauce and that searing coriander chutney, but no matter what I try, I can't seem to bring these little appetizers to life. Service at Le Taj is friendly, professional and most importantly, well-informed. Between courses, our waiter places a glass filled with tiny green chiles on the table. My dining companions start to laugh. "It's a challenge," they say, "because we asked for the food to be hot." Did someone say hot? The chiles are killers alright, but none of the dishes we eat this night is particularly hot. All are mildly spiced - accessible to all palates. Upon reflection, this common practice of turning down the heat might be detrimental to some of these dishes. Though food hot enough to singe nose hairs might be overdoing it, I would have appreciated at least some heat, and certainly a little more complexity of flavours in the spice department. Despite all this, the curries, served in three small little woks called karhais, are all very good. Saag gosht, a lamb stew with chopped spinach, is lightly spiced and the meat is melt-in-yourmouth tender. Another excellent choice is the murg jal-farezi, a stir-fry chicken served in a rich, buttery sauce enhanced with fresh coriander. Khan's makhani prawn is a wonderful dish of perfectly cooked shrimp in a generous serving of tomato-based, cream sauce with oranges and ground cashews. From the tandoori selections, we order lamb chops, which arrive at the table on a sizzle platter. They have a very strong flavour and are quite nice, especially if you're one of the rare few who like older, muttony meat. Maybe Le Taj should consider buying younger and fresher lamb of the local variety. The tandoori chicken arrives warm. The meat is dry and hardly as succulent as you'd expect a marinated, barbecued bird to be. I have a sweet tooth, but not for most Indian desserts. Predictably I find Le Taj's offerings too sweet. Gulab jamun - two fried doughnut-like balls made with flour and condensed milk - are served in a super-sweet, sugar syrup that's just overwhelming. I ask my friends for an opinion, and they tell me that in India, this dish is sometimes even sweeter. Mango kulfi is a disappointment. The Indian-style condensed milk ice cream is hard, with the mango served on the side instead of blended into the kulfi. Further, these are slices of canned mango served in their canning syrup. So be warned. And the seviyan, a sort of runny pudding made with cooked vermicelli and reduced milk, saffron and vanilla, is clearly an acquired taste. I'm much happier sipping the lovely, cardamom-and-cinnamon-flavoured Indian tea in this comfortable setting, listening to the evocative and soothing sitar music in the background. For a brief and pleasurable while, I belong to another world - one flavoured by the Jewel in the Crown, Merchant Ivory films and Ravi Shankar.