Chaat and Sweets," promised the banner outside Maharaj Indian Cuisine, so I went there in search of chaat. It took me three tries to find it.
Chaat are Indian snacks, small, spicy treats sold at food stands and train stations all across the subcontinent. Following the enormous success of Vik's, the imported foods store and chaat house on Allston Way, several other restaurants specializing in chaat have opened up in Berkeley. Chaat play off the small-plates phenomenon, appealing to budget-conscious diners and foodies with short attention spans. But their popularity is also due to the recognition that many of these snacks, in flavor, far surpass more elaborate entrées at white-tablecloth Indian restaurants.
So a new chaat house is cause for celebration. Maharaj, "King of Indian Food," is the newest hopeful tenant in a space that has seen a score of restaurants come and go over the past twenty years: the corner of 6th and University. The ugly, windowless building last occupied by New Saigon has been painted lemon yellow, and large banners on all sides advertise its grand opening.
Owners Paul Sharma and Jagvinder Singh Heer have owned Raja Catering, an Oakland-based catering company and wholesale sweets vendor, for nine years. They opened Maharaj to serve the public the dishes they have been making for years, and also to provide a retail outlet for their desserts.
On my first visit, the restaurant was packed with office workers who had come for the $5.95 lunchtime special. I asked the host for a chaat menu, and he brought us photocopied menus listing dinner entrées. No snacks.
"Well, someone needs a word about truth in advertising," I grumbled, and so my friends and I sauntered downstairs to pile our plates high. No chaat on the buffet, either. Maharaj's small lunch buffet doesn't match those offered by several other downtown Berkeley restaurants in terms of selection and quality. Six or seven dishes simmered on the steam table; naan aged at the buffet instead of being delivered to the table fresh. Iron dominated the flavor of the spinach in the gray-green saag paneer, and the overcooked tandoori chicken had been painted with a flavorless cherry-red glaze. I made a meal of the crisp vegetable pakoras (spinach and potato fritters made with chickpea flour) and a splendid golden split-lentil dal fragrant with onions, turmeric, and cumin.
As we were finishing the last scoops of our rice pudding, a waiter mounted the stairs and brought huge crepes, puffy fried breads, and tiny bowls of salads to the table across the aisle. I gawked. We descended to the cashier to pay and found a different menu sitting on the counter -- one describing the chaat. The server had misheard us.
I returned for dinner several days later to try the made-to-order dinner items. Strings of colored Christmas lights framed the doorway and the bushes in front, another attempt to brighten the restaurant's exterior. Intrepid diners not deterred by the aggressively bland exterior are in for a pleasant surprise. Inside, the bilevel room is brightly lit, clean, and colorfully painted, with two walls covered by a large trompe l'oeil mural of a pastoral vista, complete with peacock and elephant. Burgundy tablecloths cover every table, and drinks are served in thick glass goblets.
Few of the menu items depart from the basic list of Northern Indian dishes: vindaloo, saag, biryani, all with interchangeable meats. One of the specialties of the house is the paneer (homemade Indian cheese) which shows up in half the vegetarian entrées. In the most novel preparation cubes of paneer, which never melt and look and taste just like firm tofu, were roasted on a red-hot sizzle platter and then sprinkled with a zippy mint, lime, and chile concoction.
As the buffet had foreshadowed, the rest of the entrées tasted pleasant but forgettable. The "saffaron" chicken tasted of saffron and little else; the spice tinted and perfumed a thick cream sauce enveloping chunks of breast meat. Chana dal was prepared simply, like the lentil dal from the buffet. Roasted eggplant was creamed with sautéed onions, peas, and a little ginger in the baingan bhartha.
Our misunderstanding over the chaat menu turned out to be the sole misstep in uniformly excellent service. Perhaps because we were one of the only tables in the house, our waiter doted on us. He wasn't afraid to make suggestions. He made little jokes. He knew exactly when to show up with water and when to clear our plates.
We received the same attention on my third visit -- which, granted, must have appeared suspicious seeing as how I had to make all three in one week. This time my friends and I took our seats and confidently, firmly requested the chaat menu.
And finally, we received it. The two-page chaat menu lists perhaps ten lighter items and four more substantial ones (two of which weren't available the day we visited). Some, like pakora and samosas, are familiar to American diners as appetizers. Some are familiar only to devotees of Vik's and the Chaat House.
Our dishes came one by one; after the fifth the three of us could eat no more. We started out with bhel puri, a salad of textures. Puffed rice (yes, Rice Krispies), chopped onions, and crispy yellow lentil-flour thing- ies were coated in a sweet, bright mint-and-lemon dressing. It was followed by papdi chaat, tiny balloons of dough fried until cracker-crisp. Diners bite or cut a hole in the puris and spoon in cooked potatoes, chickpeas, and a thin, sweet-tart tamarind-mint sauce. Like the bhel puri, their charm lies in the interplay of textures. One bite and they're gone.
A larger puri of bread dough was the size of a plate. Good puris become large, ephemeral pillows, steaming and tender inside their flaky exterior. Ours had bubbled up in spots and left a pool of oil on the plate, but the appeal of fried bread was hard to dampen. It was the only greasy deep-fried item we tried.
Maharaj's chaat is dominated by potatoes and pulses. The combination took a different form in the aloo tikki, creamy mashed-potato croquettes sauced with a chickpea curry, whose vibrant spicing kept the double-starch combination from tasting bland and gluey. Mashed potatoes and peas, spiked with whole cumin and coriander seeds, stuffed a duo of giant samosas. We dipped them in a sugary tamarind chutney and the same hot and tangy mint sauce that had coated the roasted paneer. A more flavorful, turmeric-tinted mixture filled out a rolled masala dhosa, a large crepe made of rice and lentil flours. A loose lentil soup and a coconut-and-mustard-seed chutney were served alongside.
Indian sweets, sold at the counter by the pound, are not for everyone, but the fans among my friends approved of the sampler platter I assembled for takeout. Most of Maharaj's large and changing selection are variations on thick, grainy cakes of milk fudge. Some are sprinkled with pistachios. Some are tinted with carrot puree. Some are dyed bright pink, rolled into ovoids, and soaked in sugar syrup. Jellibi, tiny swirls of fried batter infused with an orange-colored sugar syrup, might have been tasty had they not been cooked in rancid oil. Galub jamun, balls of paneer also fried and soaked in syrup, had the most airy, tender texture of any I've tried. They were also the sweetest thing I have ever put in my mouth.
Sometimes pleasure delayed is pleasure doubled. This maxim seems to apply especially to chaat restaurants, as anyone who has waited for tables and food at Vik's can testify. On my third visit to Maharaj, I couldn't help feeling simultaneous twinges of resentment and relief, because its snacks tasted livelier and more elegant than most of the big-ticket entrées. Though Vik's still reigns as the king of chaat, at Maharaj you'll snack in style.
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