India was in the headlines last week for two very different reasons: nuclear weapons and love torpedoes. The top news articles reported a landmark deal between India and the United States that will allow this country to sell fuel and nuclear technology to New Delhi. That story cast a long shadow over the smaller news item reported by the BBC the same day, about a recent study of Indian men and condoms. “A survey of more than 1,000 men in India has concluded that condoms made according to international sizes are too large for a majority of Indian men,” the BBC reporter noted. “There was an obvious need for custom-made condoms, as most of those currently on sale are too large.”
I say there’s at least a symbolic connection between those two stories, but my friend Dixie doesn’t think so. “Size is so overrated,” she said one night when we were dining at the eight-month-old Taj Palace Restaurant. That same moment, she forked a stubby little lamb seekh kabab sausage from a steaming metal platter in the center of the table we shared with Franklin and Cookie. “It’s not what you’ve got. It’s how you use it.”
I wasn’t sure if she was talking about nukes or knobs, but it was odd to see her waving around that 4-inch spicy sausage to make her point. Dixie thinks that most Americans are obsessed with size, whether it’s cars, houses or the portions of food they eat. It’s true, in Kansas City at least, that most restaurants aren’t stingy when it comes to heaping dinner plates with food. That goes for meat-and-potatoes joints as well as ethnic restaurants. No one can say that Taj Palace owner Sangeev “Harry” Kumar is shorting his patrons — the dinner portions are ample, to say the least. A kicky seekh sausage may be less than a mouthful, but you get a lot of them on that sizzling metal plate, all smothered in soft sautéed onions and green peppers.
The meat wasn’t the only thing smothered; perhaps because there weren’t very many tables in the dining room on that chilly Tuesday night, Harry Kumar frequently loomed over us, adorably cheery and a bit larger than life. As he brought out cups of hot masala chai for us to drink, he explained that he had been the manager of Great India, the previous Indian restaurant in this location. He ran the place for six years, he said. When the owners of Great India decided to get out of the business, Kumar took over the lease, painted the walls a creamy-tan shade of chai, gave the joint a deep cleaning, and hung an embroidered tapestry of an intertwined couple near the front door.
“Is that Krishna in the tapestry?” Dixie asked, pointing toward the entrance.
“No,” Kumar said, beaming. “It’s Shah Jahan, the emperor who built the Taj Mahal, with his wife, the Mumtaz.”
The embroidered couple look like they’re on the verge of having mad-hot sex. On a less sexy note, the chai that Kumar had brought us — the soothing and spicy milk tea so beloved in India — was disappointingly bland. Dixie, who loves chai and has sipped it all over the globe, thought this brew tasted slightly chalky and needed more cardamom, cinnamon, ginger and cloves.
A more potent chai is supposed to have digestive benefits, which might have come in handy after I’d gone overboard on the fried samosas and pakoras on an appetizer platter. I’d managed to put away one pakora, two samosas and most of the wedges of pillowy naan, which I’d snapped out of the bread basket and slathered with cool mint chutney, head-clearing onion chutney, or syrupy-sweet tamarind sauce.
Cookie, meanwhile, was getting busy with a sausage. She cooled down with mango lassi, a sweet fruit-and-yogurt drink traditionally blended to the consistency of a delicate milkshake. She loved it and could barely take the straw out of her mouth. Dixie, though, was once again unimpressed. “It’s more about the mango than the yogurt,” she said.
The plate of scrumptious sausages was one of six dishes listed under the title Clay Oven Weight Watchers Specials. These “diet plates” are all cooked in the white-hot tandoori oven and served with bread instead of rice. I felt totally guilt-free ordering dinner from this collection, even though I wouldn’t categorize it as light fare.
For her own dinner, Cookie ordered lamb makhani, medium-spicy, in a gingery garlic cream sauce that was positively not Weight Watchers approved. She piled the tender cubes of meat over a heap of basmati rice. Franklin isn’t a special fan of Indian food, but he does get occasional cravings for butter chicken, and he gave thumbs up to the Taj’s version of this popular Northern Indian concoction, with hunks of succulent bird breast blanketed in a rich, thick butter-tomato sauce.
Dixie approved of her dal, a glossy black-lentil stew with kidney beans, ginger and tomato in a butter-cream curry sauce. “It tastes very good,” she said, before griping that it looked like “the Indian version of refried beans.”
She didn’t convey any of her criticisms to Kumar, despite his frequent visits to our table. (“He’s too sweet, and he’s trying so hard,” she whispered.) Not that he would have had a chance to hear her — Franklin never stopped bending his ear with suggestions for how to make the quiet dining room more lively. “You need to put in a flatscreen TV and show clips from Bollywood movies!” he said. “Just like the Bollywood Bistro in Independence! They have a disco ball, too!”
Kumar smiled wanly and nodded while Franklin carried on about hot Indian movie stars such as Aishwarya Rai and Hrithik Roshan — the Brad Pitt of Mumbai — and how a TV could really jazz up the joint.
“Come back for lunch sometime,” Kumar told us. “We have a very nice lunch buffet.”
Frankly, I prefer trolling a buffet to watching TV any day, and Kumar does set out a tasty array of mostly familiar Northern Indian fare: bright-red tandoori chicken, mildly seasoned chicken tikka masala, curry chicken aloo gobi, and the minced-lamb-and-peas dish called keema matter. (When folded into a hunk of soft naan, it looks just like an old-fashioned Nu-Way loose-meat hamburger.)
I loved Kumar’s chili chicken, in which pieces of slightly fiery chicken breast float in a delicious sort of cabbage stew that’s bright-yellow from turmeric.
I noticed a lot of scrubs-wearing employees from KU Medical Center, including a large contingent of Indian-born doctors, sharing tables and returning to the steam tables for one plate of food after another. I did a little nuclear-scale damage on the buffet myself, tasting everything and returning for seconds and thirds. I decided to pass on just one offering: gulab jaman, which are spongy pastry balls floating in a vat of honey syrup. I knew from past experience that if I devoured more than a couple of those deceptively small orbs, they would expand in my stomach.
Eating too much can be a danger at any buffet, but at the Taj Palace, gorging on all that good stuff can absolutely ruin one’s coltish figure — not that I have one. Still, what the hell: Size is so overrated.