From the outside, Royal Taj looks like another nondescript suburban restaurant in Columbia. But when you step in the door, it’s hard not to gawk.
The place is gorgeous. And when you find out the space used to be an Applebee’s, you shake your head in wonder.
“We designed it ourselves,” said owner Binda Singh. “We wanted to give it a world look that goes with the name.”
The dining areas and bar are distinctive with recessed archways, decorative carved details, fireplaces, an ornate glass chandelier and gold highlights. Formal white chairs, snowy tablecloths and weighty silverware show attention to detail.
Royal Taj isn’t new to the area. Its first location came on the scene in 2008 and was two miles from the current spot, which opened in fall 2015 after two years of renovations.
Singh isn’t new to the restaurant business either. His father, Jasvinder, owned several Indian restaurants — including the now-closed Mughal Garden in Baltimore — where the younger Singh worked from the time he was a teenager. At Royal Taj, he is assisted by his father and brother, Sony, in the restaurant’s operation.
Our meal went off without a hitch, from the initial serving of traditional papadum — wafer-like rounds of lentil bread — to our final dishes.
Our appetizers were excellent renditions of familiar Indian fare. The two meat samosas were golden pastry bundles encasing lightly spiced minced lamb. The shrimp pakora showcased six fat shrimp that had been marinated and coated in a yogurt batter before they were fried to a delicate crispness.
Our terrific server recommended boosting the starters with the sauces that were served with our bread. We obliged by mixing the spicy mint and tamarind chutneys for a sweet-heat flavor that perked up the appetizers.
Menu entrees are divided into tandoori dishes and chicken, lamb, seafood, rice and vegetable specialties with vegan options. (A lunch buffet is served Monday through Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.)
For our dinner, we really enjoyed the tandoori lamb chops. The four meaty bones were marinated in yogurt, ginger and garlic and cooked in a charcoal clay oven to an aromatic tenderness. The dish was served with soft basmati rice dotted with a smattering of peas and a mild tomato curry sauce.
We were told the chicken tikka masala is one of the restaurant’s most popular dishes. We can see why. Several yogurt-marinated nuggets of chicken breast, cooked in a tandoor oven, bobbed in a bath of captivating tomato-based cream sauce.
You can pick your heat level: one for mild, five for the most heat. We chose four and were happy with the spiciness. It had a nice zing without bringing tears.
We accompanied our dishes with onion kulcha, India’s fluffy naan stuffed with fresh onions and herbs. It was great on its own and even better dunked into a side of raita, a thin yogurt sauce studded with cucumber and tomatoes.
Like the rest of the meal, the desserts were well-prepared and thoughtful. The gulab jamun featured two airy, fried cottage cheese orbs the size of golf balls, swabbed gently with honey and sugar syrup.
The gajar halwa is a traditional Punjabi dessert made with shredded carrots, milk and almonds. The mix was delicious.
A fully stocked bar offers beverages from beer and wine to cocktails, including a fruit punch with rum. Indian drinks, like a nonalcoholic lassi, a sweetened yogurt drink, and masala chai, hot tea with milk and spices, are also available.
The Singhs, who are pleasant greeters at the restaurant, went from tight quarters that sat 85 to an expanded 230-seat space and haven’t missed a beat.
The dining rooms are stately and elegant. The service is impeccable. And delectable food matches the sophisticated space.