SPRING HILL — By popular demand, a restaurant that has been serving up authentic northern Indian food for 22 years in Tampa has brought its ethnic dishes to Hernando County.
And diners at Taj Indian Cuisine, 13031 Cortez Blvd. in Western Way Plaza, will find the atmosphere decidedly upscale: table linens, crystal goblets, satin and lace drapes, muted background music.
"There are a lot of Indian doctors here," said Ramesh Kumar, co-owner of the restaurant with his wife, Ritu Samrala. "Fifteen of them come weekly to Tampa. We finally found a place here."
Kumar said those 15 families all dined at the new restaurant over its initial weekend recently.
"They said we have saved them an hour's trip each weekend," said a smiling Kumar, schooled in the kitchen by his father, who has operated a thriving restaurant in Punjab for 40 years.
Dishes of northern India are characterized by their cooking in clay ovens, Kumar explained. Even grilling is accomplished in a clay oven, fueled with charcoal. Naan, unleavened bread, is traditionally baked by throwing pats of dough against the oven walls. At Taj, naan can be ordered deep-fried as well.
Indian seasonings define both meat and vegetarian dishes, Kumar pointed out. Seasonings tend toward the aromatic, spicy, sweet and colorful. They range from coriander through cumin, garlic, ginger, cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, turmeric and saffron.
The chefs at Taj concoct and grind together their own spice blends, known as garam masala, distinctively flavoring curry dishes.
"Everybody can eat," Kumar said of the even-handed seasoning of the menu offerings. Diners may order "mild" or "extra spicy."
The restaurant also makes its own paneer, a tofulike fresh cottage cheese, he said, popularly served at Taj combined with various vegetables, served deep-fried or in a vegetable sauce.
Menus are similar at the Tampa and Spring Hill restaurants, with prices somewhat lower in Spring Hill, Samrala said.
Most popularly chosen: the house specialty, butter chicken, along with paneer makhani (sauced cheese balls, tomatoes and onion), malai kofta (sauced cheese balls and mixed vegetables) and chicken madras (a South India curried chicken with coconut milk). A favorite beverage is a chilled fresh mango yogurt drink, which Kumar describes as "like a milk shake."
Taj offers a $9.95 lunch buffet — dishes labeled — with three nonvegetables, four vegetables, two kinds of rice, two desserts and naan. Selections differ daily.
The evening a la carte menu features 10 chicken entrees, nine lamb, seven beef, five goat, 13 seafood, 24 vegetarian specialties and nine tandoori, or barbecue, specialties, from $10.95 to $19.95, as well as pulao rice dishes, appetizers, soups, sides, homemade breads, desserts and distinctly Indian beverages.
Beth Gray can be reached at [email protected]