Patchen Drive's main restaurant site, set back along a corridor, is virtually invisible from Richmond Road. That spot has had several incarnations, the last being India Garden. The latest is Taj India.
New ownership has retained its predecessor's cavernous interior with minimal décor. Not very cozy, but some of Lexington's better ethnic fare is served in austere, or at least quite informal, spaces. That is the case here. Because Taj India exercises restraint with cream and the Indian clarified butter known as ghee, the food seems lighter, the tastes brighter, allowing us to again taste the complex flavors of this world-class cuisine.
Starters, though, are still mostly fried and filling. The best among them are paneer, India's slightly briny white cheese, stuffed with spicy herbs, and aloo tikka, an onion-studded mashed potato patty. Samosas with vegetables or meat are also fine, as are the spicy vegetable pakoras, aka fritters, made with chickpea flour and turmeric. The first two are standouts.
For those eating lighter, order the appetizer of chicken tikka. It's a steal at $6.99: a large platter of white meat, onions and green peppers, enough to call dinner for two. Complement it with a vegetarian entrée. (All entrees come with delicious basmati rice.) I recommend the cauliflower and potatoes (aloo ghobi) with ginger and onion.
You will, of course, be asked about spice. "Mild to medium" spicy seems to be the ideal heat — it's hot, but still shows off the light hand with ghee and the main ingredients. Make sure to ask for mint chutney — all minced herbs and jalapeños, not diluted — and a side of the sassy tomato and onion chutney, too.
No Indian meal is complete without bread. I am going to part company with naan lovers for a moment because really good naan can be hard to find. Much of it is doughy, undercooked and missing the signature blisters. The garlic in the naan I sampled at Taj was almost raw, making its taste sharp and slightly bitter.
So instead, let me suggest the wonderful paratha stuffed with radishes. I love this buttery whole-wheat griddle bread, and the radishes added an unexpected texture and taste that paired beautifully with tikka and vegetables. It all added up to the perfectly satisfying and modest mid-week meal.
For larger parties, however, it makes sense to order more indulgently. Share and then take home leftovers. Most Indian dishes really are as good reheated.
If you like chicken cacciatore, you'll love chicken jalfrezel, its slightly sweet-tart Indian counterpart. Again, the hand with ghee is gentle, allowing the herbs and spices to shine, and the meat was simmered to tender perfection.
You will know that you are in an Indian restaurant, though, at the first bite of the lamb mango: beautifully cooked chunks of lamb, not fatty at all, in a tangy tomato sauce with onions, garlic and ginger ... and broccoli. Initially, broccoli seemed incongruous, but I confess that the earthiness played well with the sweetness of mango chutney.
Both curries had the marvelous thick gravy that comes from the slow stewing of meat, aromatics and vegetables.
Finally, excess notwithstanding, try the vegetable biryani. It's a small mountain of rich, yellow-orange basmati rice, loaded with limas and garbanzos, green beans and peas, corn kernels and carrots. One serving could feed six people.
I have always thought it was brave to open a restaurant in such an inconspicuous location. But it's not about courage, really. The key is providing easy parking (yes, this is Lexington), good service, and very, very good food.RESTAURANT REVIEW
Address: 154 Patchen Dr., No. 68
Hours: Lunch: 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. daily. Dinner: 5-10 p.m. Sun.-Thu., 5-10:30 p.m. Fri.-Sat.
Phone: (859) 268-0055
Other: Parking lot. Alcohol served. Appetizers and soups, $2-$6.99; condiments and breads, $1-$$6.50; entrees, including rice dishes, $8.99-$14.99; desserts, $2.75.