(March 2012 Update - This entry is going to be a little confusing as I've been informed that Taj Oriental in Moline is now known as India Rasoi. Rasoi is Hindu for Kitchen. This entry was written after we went to Taj Oriental twice before the name was changed last month. It's my understanding the original owner skipped town and left the place to new management who changed the name to India Rasol. However, the chef stayed and the food is still the same.)
A local friend who we don't see enough of, Shawn Eldridge, sent me a tip on a new Indian restaurant that opened last year in Moline, Taj Oriental. After my visit to Taj of India in Indianapolis (click here to see that entry), I couldn't quit raving to Cindy about how good the curry chicken was at that place. She said, "Didn't Shawn say there's some new Indian restaurant in Moline that's pretty good?" I didn't feel like cooking one Sunday evening, so we made the trek across the river to downtown Moline to Taj Oriental. (See map)
Taj Oriental is housed in the same space that was once the upscale and rather snooty Charles Michel fine-dining restaurant, as well as an Italian restaurant, Portabella's, that we ate at once and we had a sub-par meal. It wasn't open much more than a year, if that.
There is evidently a Hawaiian connection to Taj Oriental, one that was cryptically told to us by a young guy who appeared to be an owner or manager of the restaurant. He said relatives own an Indian restaurant on the island of Kaua'i and that's where he learned the art of Indian cooking. He said he was in Las Vegas about 10 years ago at an Indian restaurant and the food was so good he asked to meet the chef. The chef was a young Indian and the two became good friends. Somehow - and I'm still fuzzy on this - they ended up in Moline opening Taj Oriental last summer.
While the front of Taj Oriental sports sort of a "bunker-type" concrete facade, the interior of the restaurant hasn't changed much from the time we'd been in years ago when it was still an Italian restaurant. The booths were still set back in little alcoves along the north and east walls of the restaurant, with sturdy wooden tables and chairs throughout the main dining area. A hard wood floor with a high ceiling echoes conversations throughout the place and I do remember it being somewhat loud in there on the previous visit.
Taj Oriental is also known for their lunchtime buffets - served 7 days a week - and a large buffet area is off to the side of the main dining room.
Since it was a Sunday night when we were there, only a couple three other tables were filled with diners. We were met by a hostess/waitress who told us later that it was her first day on the job at the restaurant. (We could tell - her knowledge of Indian food was even worse than ours.) She sat us in one of the booths along the east wall and gave us menus. The room temperature of the restaurant was cool for me and downright cold for Cindy. "It's like they don't have the heat on in here," she said.
Like most Indian restaurants I've encountered over the past couple three years, the selection at Taj Oriental was no different from many of the others I've been to. They featured Tandoor oven baked foods, as well as a wide selection of vegetarian dishes on the menu. They also feature a number of seafood entrees, but they are known for their biryani dishes - a seasoned basmati rice that originated in the Middle East that, depending upon who is doing the cooking, may include scrambled eggs, ginger, nutmeg, coriander, garlic and onions, then mixed with your choice of chicken, goat, shrimp or vegetables. Goat - I had that once in Atlanta. I think I'll pass on goat biryani.
While we were looking through the menu, the waitress brought us a free appetizer consisting of a sort of Indian thin bread - that's the best I can describe it - with a red curry sauce and a green herb sauce on the side. Sort of like tortilla chips, the "chips" were deep fried and still a little oily hot when she brought them to the table. Actually, both sauces on the appetizer were pretty darn good.
I was thinking of getting something along the lines of the Murgh (Chicken) vindaloo or the Murgh curry. Since I'd had the curry chicken in Indianapolis about four nights before - and it was just killer - I thought I'd go with the vindaloo that evening. Cindy ended up ordering some of the jingha biryani - shrimp with rice. The waitress let the owner/manager come over to take our order as he had to ask some questions as to how spicy we wanted our foods. I told him that I'd like my vindaloo a little spicier than medium. "Medium-hot, if you can do that," I told him. Cindy said she wanted her shrimp biryani "medium." He asked if we wanted any naan to go with the meal and I perked up and said, "Naan! Oh, sure! We'll take the garlic naan!"
Our meals came out about 15 minutes after we ordered and we were ready to dig in. Cindy's eyes got big when the shrimp biryani was placed in front of her. It was this huge mound of basmati rice with herbs and spices with medium-sized grilled shrimp throughout. "Geez," she exclaimed. "This is a lot of food!" She already was thinking of getting a to-go box before she even dug in. There was a ton of biryani on her platter.
My chicken vindaloo came with a deep red colored gravy broth - something that I don't remember from visits to other Indian restaurants where I got chicken vindaloo. Usually, vindaloo is more of a brown sauce than a deep red sauce like I had at Taj Oriental. The taste was a little different than I remember from other vindaloo dishes I've had, as well. What my mind was telling my taste buds vindaloo should taste like didn't quite jive with the messages my taste buds were sending back to my brain. It wasn't bad - just different. It took me about five minutes of eating before I figured out that I sort of liked it.
The garlic naan was good - not the best I've had - but still good. It was actually more fluffy than other naan breads we've had in the past, but there was a large amount of cilantro and garlic chunks on the bread helping to make it very tastey when it was topped with some of the murgh vindaloo.
Cindy just raved about the shrimp biryani. "This is outstanding," she excitedly said between bites. I had a bite of some rice with a shrimp and she was right. It was very good. It was a little spicy, but the seasonings they add to the rice helped cut down the zippy taste sensation. I liked it better than my chicken vindaloo, and I ended up liking the vindaloo.
But spicy? Whew! This was supposedly medium-hot and it was getting my attention. It wasn't anything that I couldn't eat, but I was certainly going through the water. The waitress was back about once every three minutes to fill our water glasses as Cindy's biryani was a little spicy, as well. Cindy tried a bite of the vindaloo and she said, "Oh, my God. That's too spicy for me."
When the owner and/or manager came over to see how things were, I told him that the spiciness was really getting my attention. He said, "When you said 'medium-hot', I backed that down to medium. Our dishes are naturally hot here at Taj Oriental, so our medium is a little more spicy than what you'd find at most other Indian restaurants." I told him that may be a good thing to tell people before they order.
Cindy picked out all the shrimp out of her biryani and ate them when she knew she wasn't going to be able to finish the whole thing. There was still well over half the platter covered in basmati rice. She asked the waitress for a box and the box she brought over was almost too small for all the rice Cindy wanted to put inside. I had a bunch of the steamed rice that came with my murgh vindaloo that was leftover and I asked her if she wanted to mix it together with her rice. Cindy said, "No, I don't think so. I love the taste of this rice. It would go great with chicken." And it did - we had baked chicken the next evening at home and finished off a good portion of the remaining amount of the seasoned basmati rice. Actually, I think the taste of the seasoned rice was better after it sat in the fridge for nearly 24 hours and was reheated.
The owner and/or manager came over to check on us and he offered a free dessert on the house that evening. He offered the Gulab Jamun which are round milk dumplings, deep-fried and topped with cinnamon and a sweet cardamon syrup. We immediately said, "No!!!" We were so stuffed from all the food we got at Taj Oriental. He asked us if we were sure and Cindy said, "Well, we can take it home, can't we?"
He explained that it was the type of dessert that usually had to be eaten fresh. "It doesn't travel well," he said. OK, well, that was a nice gesture on his part, but we still declined.
We both agreed that Taj Oriental was good - good enough to make plans to go back again at some point. While my vindaloo was "different" from other vindaloo's I've had, it was still good. And Cindy thoroughly enjoyed her shrimp biryani. We just have to remember next time that their medium spiciness is more like medium-hot at other Indian restaurants.
(Update - Since this post was originally written a couple months ago, we've been back to Taj Oriental one other time. Once again, it was cold in there - the temperature in the dining room had to be in the low 60's. Cindy wore her heavy winter jacket around her the whole time. One of the waiters came over and asked if she was cold. "Freezing," was her reply. He explained that their furnace was out and that someone was supposed to come the day before to fix it. We're guessing that since it was cold the first time we came, the furnace may have been out for quite some time.
I went into the restroom to use the facilities and when I went to wash my hands I waited and waited and waited for hot water to come out of the faucet. It didn't. No hot water in the restroom. That's not good.
Service that evening was horrible. There was a waiter and a waitress. The waitress sat us at a booth and gave us both water and menus. Then she forgot about us. We sat there and waited. It was over 10 minutes since we had walked in and no one had come over. It finally got to a point that I had my timer on my cell phone going, saying that if no one came to take our order in five minutes, we'd get up and leave. The girl finally came back to us a couple minutes later and said, "Has no one taken your order?" Nope. She was running around waiting on two other tables (it wasn't that busy) and the waiter was doing God knows what - moving tables, chairs, plates, whatever he could do other than take our order.
Cindy ordered some tea to go with her meal and it took over 25 minutes for her to get the tea. And that was because the girl served it with our meals. Yep, service was excruciatingly slow that evening.
I will say the chicken curry I had that evening was pretty good (below left). I ordered the curry sauce medium knowing that from the last time we were in that their food tends to run a little spicy at Taj Oriental. It had a bite to the sauce and the chicken was tender and tasty. Still, it didn't come close to my new gold standard of chicken curry that I had at Taj of India in Indianapolis.
Cindy had the paneer tikka (above right) - marinated chicken with onion and green pepper and cooked in a tandoor oven. It was brought out on a sizzling plate, similar to fajitas. Cindy loved it. I had a bite and it was pretty good.
Still, we couldn't get over the slowness of the service. From the time we walked in to the time we left, it was nearly an hour and a half. I said, "Well, we'll have to rethink coming here if the service is going to be that slow."
If you're not in a hurry, Taj Oriental is very good. If you are in a hurry, come for the lunch buffet.