8335 Benson Drive, Columbia, MD 21211 (http://royaltajmd.com/)
When I first mentioned to a good friend of mine that I was starting up a food blog, we happened to be sitting and chatting about restaurants in the area to try. One of the recommendations for my new endeavor: Royal Taj, a Columbia restaurant tucked away in a small commercial center in a former Applebee’s. A little over a month later, my wife and I headed over on a whim for a Tuesday evening dinner. Though I went in expecting a solid Indian meal, after the showing by Royal Taj, I plan on returning with expectations of so much more.
Walking up to Royal Taj, what struck me immediately was the freshly constructed outdoor entryway – still yet-to-be stained. As we entered the restaurant, we were warmly greeted; a taste of things to come. Looking up, you get an idea of the “Royal” in the name: crown molding throughout the restaurant, trimmed in gold, with a large antique chandelier hanging in the center of the main room. Our table, set in a smaller room off of the main dining area, continued with the gold motif, adding two marbled fireplaces on opposite walls. Service, prompt, friendly, and attentive, made for an enjoyable experience on top of the food.
Every table begins with a basket of Papadam, the paper-thin lentil bread. Don’t be fooled by its light weight: the crispy wafers are savory, spicy, and delicious. The basket does not last long. We opt to start with the Alu Tikki. The appetizer houses a creamy potato interior and is lightly coated in a chickpea batter and fried until crunchy. The potatoes are well seasoned and have mild notes of heat. A solid beginning.
Moving along to the entrees, we stick with our favorites: Chicken Biryani and Vegetable Jalfrezi. Biryani, a savory rice dish, flavors its featured grain with saffron and other spices, including cardamom. The dish is rounded out with sliced almonds and raisins, which add a sweet and fruity bite. Though the rice was cooked nicely and fully seasoned, the cardamom tended to overpower the gentle flavor of saffron. And the chicken, while plentiful, was far from mind-blowing. Whereas the Biryani lacked balance, the Jalfrezi was well-rounded in its flavors. Garlic, ginger, and aromatics sautéed in butter are featured prominently on top of seasonal vegetables. Served alongside basmati rice, it’s a dish worth returning for. Rounding out our meal is Tandoori Naan, the traditional Indian flatbread. Full disclosure: I have yet to find a naan that I did not love; and nothing changes here.
As if our meal was not filling enough, the kitchen is kind enough to send out a small, yet
memorable ending to the meal. Galub Jamun, bite-sized morsels made up of cottage cheese, then deep fried and dipped in honey-simple syrup mixture, make you re-think the idea of a donut hole. Served alongside a cup of Chai (spiced tea), it’s a sweet, and satisfying, ending to a fine meal.
Sometimes finding new and exciting restaurants outside of Baltimore and D.C. can be burdensome. For better or worse, we tend to get four to five chains (not that they don’t have their merit) for every independently run restaurant. But in the last several years, places like Royal Taj have been popping up and giving me hope for a change in restaurant culture in the county. Bottom line: Royal Taj provides yet another reason to make a trek to the ‘burbs.
Atmosphere: The building – formerly home to an Applebee’s – has been completely transformed. Crown molding around the ceilings featured gold trim, a large and antique chandelier hung in the main dining room, and a smaller room housed two fireplaces on opposing walls. Service had the polish of a fine dining establishment in a big city: friendly and knowledgeable waiters; well paced dishes; and attentiveness throughout the meal.
Noise: Hushed. We heard little bits and pieces of conversations at neighboring tables, but the loudest parts of the evening were the friendly waitstaff delivering a quick description of the food being dropped off.
Recommended Dishes: Alu Tikki, Vegetable Jalfrezi, Tandoori Naan, Papadam, Gulab Jamun
Reservations: Accepted. We strolled in on a Tuesday evening and were seated right away. The restaurant has ample seating – including a bar, a main dining room, and a more intimate, side room with two well-appointed fireplaces.
$$ – $25 to $50 for dinner for two