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Royal Treatment

[whitespace] Satnam Singh
George Sakkestad

Princely Platter: Royal Taj's Satnam Singh holds up a sample of the restaurant's extensive menu.

Keeping the spice trade active in the heart of Santa Cruz, Royal Taj continues to dish out as much curry as its clientele can handle

By Christina Waters

GUARDING ITS portion of the turf devoted to the complex cookery of India, Royal Taj specializes in affordable exotica. The lunch buffet here has long been hailed by thrifty gourmets in need of a fix of fenugreek or the kick of cumin. At dinner the patronage is just as eclectic and passionate. They come for the sitar music swelling in the background and for the huge mirror-studded textiles billowing from the ceiling. It's a place that feels like a journey to New Delhi--or perhaps California, circa 1968. Jack and I voyaged out last week on a chilly evening, and we felt warmer the minute we hit the booth in Royal Taj's side dining room. Just reading the menu provides all kinds of sensory stimulation. Aloo tikki, paneer pakora, gosht vindaloo, bhindi masala--each beautiful name whispers of ancient perfume.

We decided that a mild Indian lager like Kingfisher beer and a glass of house cabernet sauvignon would do well. "It's very Jimi Hendrix at mid-career," Jack observed of the spice-laden décor. An order of chicken pakoras ($3.25) gave the atmospheric dinner its jump-start.

Two chile sauces, one red and sweet, the other green and quite zippy, came with the large platter piled high with delicately fried chicken nuggets. Very moist, the chicken morsels bore the tang of yogurt marinade. They were nice, but I think the cuisine merits a more dignified presentation than from waiters "outfitted" in T-shirts.

Suddenly all of our a la carte orders arrived at once, and the table became a landscape of orange, sepia and ochre. An order of mughlai biryani ($8.95) arrived in a brass bowl, huge with saffron and the heady aroma of cilantro. A wonderful curry dish, biryani is filled with basmati rice, substantial chunks of spiced and roasted lamb, golden raisins and cashews. Even more cashews would have been welcome, but the composition was quite lovely.

A bowl of raita--yogurt and cucumbers, flecked with dried mint--is a crucial catalyst for this cuisine, since many of the dishes you're likely to order can be quite fiery. Sizzling tandoori platters were being brought to neighboring tables as we dipped bites of moist, very well-made rounds of nan bread into the raita, refreshing after the chile-laced aloo matar ($6.50). Easily one of my favorite Indian dishes, aloo matar is essentially an earthy purée of spinach and chiles, punctuated by fat potatoes and cardamom. The heat gives an undercurrent of vitality to the whole meal, and we happily wiped our brows and dipped more bread into the cooling yogurt.

Another entree of prawn vindaloo ($7.75) set off an explosion of cinnamon and more chiles, along with plenty of scallions and more cilantro. Packed with prawns, the dish became even better as the temperature cooled, and by the end of our meal it was our favorite.

The way to go at Royal Taj is to order the full dinners. For example, our order of Bhuna chicken ($6.95), filled with the peppery notes of cardamom and fenugreek--the spice that really drives the entire curry concept--could have been had as a full dinner for only $3 more, complete with rice pilaf, nan, raita and a green salad. But duty required that we order a la carte.

Sure enough, after an hour of sampling from among our four main dishes, our palates hit a wall of sensory overload. So complex in spicing is Indian cookery as interpreted by Royal Taj--and in several cases ignited by the rocket fuel of dried red chiles--that it can become a bit like an overly animated conversation. Each voice is great, but when they all speak at the same time--and at high volume--the effect can be bewildering.

Royal Taj's Indian cuisine is hypnotically spiced--I could make a weekly meal out of the plushly pyrotechnic aloo matar, plus some raita and nan. So could you.

Royal Taj
Address: 270 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz
Phone: 408.427.2400
Entrees: $8.75-$14.25
Hours: Open daily 11:30am-2:30pm and 5:30-10pm.
Prices: Daily lunch buffet $6.50.
Service: ** Occasionally casual but friendly.
Ambiance: ** It feels relaxed and easy-going, with some nice details of authentic artwork and music.
Cuisine: ** 1/2 Nicely made specialties of Indian cookery, with attention to distinctive spicing.
Overall: Royal Taj is the area's only Indian restaurant, and it produces fine dishes at excellent value.

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From the December 22-29, 1999 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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