Above the buffet table inside the month-old Taj Indian restaurant is a mural depicting a traditional Sikh ceremony of costumed dancers and musicians. In the background is the Harmandir Sahib Golden Temple – for Sikhs, an iconic place of worship – built in the 1500s of white marble overlaid with gold leaf, and rebuilt in 1764. It’s in the town of Amritsar, the spiritual center of the Sikh religion, in the Punjab region of India.
It’s indicative of the heritage of Taj co-owners Bobby Singh and his cousin, Jay Masuta. It also speaks to a characteristic of the cuisine, which is specific to the Punjab – “spicy.” Some would say “hot.”
Singh owned Raj Indian Cuisine in Berkeley from 1993 to 2003 before moving to Sacramento to open a clothing business and grocery store.
How did he get back into the biz? “A really good cook I’ve known for a while called and said he was free, and I decided to look up (a space for) a restaurant,” Singh said. “One day my wife and I came here for dinner when it was the Sher-e-Punjab restaurant. After dinner, we were driving out of the parking lot when the cook phoned to say there was a restaurant at Fair Oaks and Marconi for sale – the Sher-e-Punjab. I made a U-turn, came back and talked with the owner.”
If Taj is successful, the plan is to “open a second restaurant downtown,” Singh said. Business has been good so far, in part because of an increasing number of catering jobs.
We tasted a medley of items, including vegetable pakora (cauliflower and other veggies dipped in garbanzo-bean batter and fried), lamb curry (with surprisingly chewy meat), and chicken tikka masala (tender fowl in a soothing sauce). No Indian meal is complete without naan, leavened flatbread traditionally cooked in a tandoor oven. Choose from 10, including one stuffed with minced lamb. A basket of oven-war assorted naan (plain, garlic and onion) was $6.50.
We used the excellent dipping sauces liberally – yogurt-mint, cucumber-yogurt, mango chutney and spicy tamarind. The fiery onion relish was followed by many glasses of iced water. “I keep that one for customers who like really spicy food,” Singh said. Two ice creams – mango and “Indian spices” with a blizzard of coconut powder – were cooling cappers.