When was the last time you ate chicken tikka masala on a rustic riverfront deck, as a manatee drifted by and a footlong, eye-poppingly bright green lizard watched you from under a nearby table?
It was probably the last time you ate at Taj Mahal, though this colorful Indian restaurant (whose glow-in-the-dark green exterior perfectly matches that lizard) on the Little River was likely operating under a different name. For almost five years, the place was known as Renaisa, for better or worse.
Better: the first, family-run incarnation, when its kitchen honchos and unique specialties were from Bangladesh. Worse: a blessedly brief second incarnation, when new owners took over the kitchen, and the food went down the tubes along with the eatery's reputation.
620 NE 78th St, Miami; 305-758-2929. Open daily noon to 3 p.m. and 5 to 11 p.m.
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Now under new ownership, Taj Mahal turns out fare that positions the place somewhere between Renaisa I and II. The menu offers few surprises, instead encompassing Miami's usual North Indian/Moglai-based rundown: tandoori this-'n'-that; rice biryanis and pulaos; meat, chicken, veggies, and a few seafood choices cooked in all the standard styles/sauces (curry, korma, vindaloo, tikka masala, etc.). But dishes are generally satisfying, if not spectacular.
In India, chaats — a vast variety of street food snacks served with a range of toppings that make each item a sweet/sour/savory sensory celebration — are some of the country's tastiest fare. So Taj Mahal's "Bombay Chat" starter (described as chilled spiced chickpeas topped with tamarind, homemade yogurt, and a samosa) seemed worth a try. Sadly, though, there was no discernable tamarind sauce, nor any spicing on the chickpeas. The result produced nothing dramatically wrong, but nothing really right, except for the large, plumply stuffed samosa. This was indeed superior — an admirably thin and crisp crust and a mixed vegetable filling that, for a change, was more than mashed potatoes.
As for entrées, paneer makhni (butter paneer), ordered medium-hot, featured skillfully made cubes of fresh Indian cheese — firm enough to hold their shape, yet tender. But the dish's "sweet tomato sauce" was atypically thin, with no tomato taste; the main flavor was heat, zippy but one-dimensional. The thicker mild cream sauce of vegetable korma — a mix of peas, carrots, cauliflower, potatoes, onions, and overcooked broccoli — was less fun, its texture oddly grainy (perhaps from grated coconut) and its main flavor overly sweet. Still, it was comforting, in a baby food kind of way. And an à la carte round of garlic nan, sprinkled profusely with aromatic fresh slivers, elevated the sopped-up sauce to grown-up status.
By strictly culinary standards, there's very little that makes the third incarnation of this Indian restaurant stand out from the pack. But the cooking is competent enough that patrons scared off by Renaisa II can come back with confidence. Taj Mahal serves up satisfying, if generic, Indian food in a rough-edged but relaxing riverfront setting that remains uniquely Miamian.