Monday, July 25, 2016

Taj-E-India, White River Junction, Vermont

As you've been reading for a few weeks now, I often visit my family in the north east.  Since moving away, and becoming more of a "foodie", I've had a progression of experiences in dining every time I return.  For a while, I wanted to visit all the places I remembered loving, except, well, I realized that, for the most part, they really weren't very good (except, Sabo's Subs, iceberg lettuce and all!).  Then, my family members went through a phase where they wanted me to try all their favorite places, telling me constantly that a place was amazing and dragging me there (Dear sister, I'm sorry, The Flying Goose is awful).  Then I did a bunch of research, and sought out new destinations (like the amazing, but now shuttered, Home Hill Inn).  Eventually I gave up,  and stopped going out to eat there (except to get my daily ice cream at my favorite place, Dairy Twirl, or to diners for breakfast).

This worked fine, until my family members actually wanted restaurant food, and my mom didn't want to cook.  I was cramping their style.  So I went back to the drawing board.  I knew that I didn't want something that I get a better version of in San Francisco.  At some point, the idea of indian cuisine struck me.  I love Indian food, but, San Francisco really doesn't have Indian food that I like.  My parent's town doesn't have any Indian restaurants of course, but, a few towns over, there is a place that serves Indian food.  It isn't exactly a restaurant, but, more on that in a minute.  Now, I realize, that if San Francisco doesn't have Indian food I like, a little town in Vermont is even less likely to.  But ... local Yelpers love it.

So I tried to convince my family that we should get Indian food, which is when I hit a hurdle.  My parents had never eaten Indian food before.  They had no idea if they would like it and no real idea what to expect.  My mom was worried it would be spicy.  My dad really doesn't like trying new things and has a pretty limited set of foods he eats.  I was pretty sure that it would appeal to both of them, as long as they could get over the fact that it was an unknown.

In the end, I was able to convince them, and then began the process of figuring out what we should order, taking their preferences into account, and trying to describe the different dishes.  Like ... paneer.  Imagine trying to explain paneer to someone who has never encountered anything like it before.  "You don't understand, the cheese IS the main ingredient, just like chicken in that other dish ..." or "no, no, it isn't cheese like pizza cheese, it doesn't melt."  Yeah, it was kinda funny actually.

Anyway, the Indian establishment in question was Taj-E-India, a couple towns over, in White River Junction, Vermont.  I say establishment, not restaurant, as, it isn't a restaurant.  They don't have any seating.  It is take-out only, and sorta seems to operate out of someone's house.  Oh, and they don't just serve Indian cuisine, they also have Chinese food.  The menu has 92 items on it (!!!)

Yup, a Chinese-Indian combination takeout shop, with far too large of a menu, in Vermont.  I was in for an adventure.

Overall, it actually wasn't *bad*, but it was pretty unremarkable and was seriously lacking spicing.  If it was in San Francisco, I certainly wouldn't return a second time.  But given the lack of options in the Lebanon area though, after my first visit in summer 2014, I decided to return again in the summer of 2015.  I liked it even less that time, so, I doubt I'll return a third time.

Setting

Taj-E-India is a takeout only establishment, with absolutely no seating.

Everyone picks up food and drives away with it (or, if they are like me, perhaps sneak a bite in the car).  The food was ridiculously hot and fresh.  I actually burnt myself when I took a bite immediately, and it was still all reasonably warm when I got to my parent's house, 20 minutes away.

Since it is a takeout only shop, they know how to package the food well.  Curries come in plastic containers, rice in Chinese takeout style boxes, breads wrapped in foil, and the whole thing inside a paper bag, inside a plastic bag with handles.  You do need to ask for plates and silverware if you want them.
Picnic Table.
Ok, they do however have one lone picnic table in the parking lot, so if it happens to be a nice day, and you manage to be the only one with the thought, you can dine there.  Don't count on it.

Counter to order, pickup, and pay.
Once you venture inside the house, there is a counter where you pick up your food and pay.  Behind the counter was a TV playing Bollywood videos.  It was staffed only when an order was ready.
Waiting area.
The waiting area was literally just this one little sofa.  On my second visit, there were about 8 of us waiting to pick up food, and we couldn't all fit inside.  Four people seems to be about the max.  I told you it was tiny!

Appetizers

The first time I ordered from Taj-E-India, I stuck to the curries, rice, and bread, as I thought they would be the most familiar items to my family.

The second time though, I got more adventurous and decided to introduce my family to Indian food appetizers.  The menu had several types of pakora, samosas, and chaat.  They also had Chinese food appetizers, like deep fried spring rolls, if you wanted to try the Chinese food, either in combination with your Indian or not.
Vegetable Pakora.  $2.49.
"Deep fried assorted vegetable fritters."

I went for the veggie pakora, hoping it would be the most friendly option.

My mom thought it was interesting to have the bits of different vegetables all stuck together, but no one really seemed excited by these.  No one took a second one.

I tried them right when they were hot and fresh when I picked up the food, and even then, I thought they weren't great .  Kinda soggy, kinda oily, meh.  None of us would get these again.

$2.49 price for the portion was good though.

Breads

The bread section of the menu is impressive, featuring both leavened and unleavened varieties, including roti, poori, and multiple types of paratha, naan, and kulcha.  I tried different breads on each visit, but was never quite happy with any of them.  Pretty sure they do not have a tandoori oven.

Like everything, I tried the breads immediately upon receiving my orders, since I wanted to be able to fairly evaluate them, and I knew that waiting the 20 minute drive home would likely compromise the quality.  While Indian food generally holds up well to a little time, bread is the exception.  However, the breads were all pretty soggy and never crisp, even when fresh.  This is a case where leftovers were better than fresh, as I was able to crisp the breads up a bit in the toaster oven when I got home.
Garlic Naan. $2.49.
"Naan stuffed with fresh garlic and herbs."

I started with the bread I figured would be the most friendly to those unfamiliar with Indian food: naan.  And garlic naan, because garlic naan is clearly the superior naan.

Unfortunately, it was disappointing.  It was thin, too moist, and not at all crispy or charred.  The garlic flavor was nice though, and my parents and Ojan all quite liked it.

$2.49 for a single naan was a little high, particularly given how small it was.  You can't tell from the photo, but this is the smallest piece of naan I've ever seen.  And it was thin, not cut, and didn't actually seem to have been cooked in a tandoor.  Meh.
Roti. $1.99. 
"Whole Wheat Bread."

Alongside the naan, I also got roti to show my family an unleavened style in comparison.

The roti was thin, and a bit gummy, and again, not crisp.  The whole wheat flavor was nice, but otherwise, it really failed to impress.

$1.99 price for a small size single roti was ok, but perhaps a bit higher than I'd expect.
Onion Kulcha.  $2.49.
"Fine flour bread stuffed with onion and herbs."

The second time, I moved on to a stuffed bread, onion kulcha (in addition to another order of garlic naan, since my mom had liked it on the first visit.  I remained unimpressed.).

Again, I figured the leavened bread would be more comfortable for them, and knew onions are generally crowd pleasers.

The kulcha, like the previous breads, wasn't crispy, and was a bit flimsy.  It was studded with plentiful chunks of red onion and herbs, making it probably my favorite of the breads, just because it had some flavor.

The others weren't too impressed.  The $2.49 price was in line with the other stuffed bread pricing.
Paratha. $2.49.
"Whole wheat bread with butter."

And finally, paratha, again just to show another type of whole wheat bread.

It was thin and oily, quite dense.  It didn't have any noticeable layers and didn't seem much different from the roti.  I did like the whole wheat flavor though.

Flavorwise, it was my second favorite, but, the bread itself just wasn't very good.

Curries

Like most Indian restaurants, the majority of the menu is curries, vegetable, chicken, lamb, or seafood.  Since my family doesn't eat seafood or lamb, and my dad and I don't like chicken, we mostly went for vegetarian options, although Ojan and my mom split a chicken curry.

The rest of the menu is rounded out by tandori meats and biryanis, none of which we tried.
Saag Paneer.  $9.99.
"Chunks of homemade cheese in creamed spinach and fresh spices."

I'll admit it, much of the reason I like Indian food is because of paneer.  I just adore it.  I'm certainly not a vegetarian, but when eating Indian food, I go for paneer whenever possible.  I also gravitate towards cream/butter style sauces, but I actually wanted one dish that wasn't quite as heavy, so, the first time I ordered, I went for the saag, to throw in some token veggies.

The style of the saag was very creamy, sort of the opposite of what I was intending.  I actually prefer less cream, more spices, and larger bits of spinach, but I know this is just a preference thing.  For this style of saag, it was fine.  But I wanted to actually taste spinach more than cream.  The spicing was ok.

There was a reasonable amount of paneer, in batons, but the cheese was pretty unremarkable.  Not seared or crusted in any way, but not too rubbery either.  Just kinda there.  It didn't make me want to try more of their paneer dishes.

Overall, this was fine, but pretty mediocre.  My mother really liked it.  My dad said he could tolerate it, but it was "eh", and he only had a single bite.  I tried some leftover the next day, and liked it even less.

$9.99 price was fine for the portion size.
Malai Kofta Kashmiri.  $9.99.
"Garden vegetables & homemade cheeseballs cooked in a rich sauce with nuts & cream."

Since I didn't want just two dishes of paneer, and I dislike chickpeas and lentils, I had pretty much only one choice for a second dish the first time we ordered, the malai kofta.

There were I think three large balls.  I never really know what veggies go into kofta, but in these, the veggies seemed a bit more obvious than usual, and there was clearly spinach and potato.  I didn't taste the cheese, but I know there was ground up paneer in there too.

The balls didn't seem really fried, which was nice, but I do like to have a bit of a crust on the kofta.  These fell apart the moment a fork approached them, and broke down into mush.  Flavorful mush, but still, mush.

The sauce was unremarkable.  Besides my love for paneer, the other reason I love Indian food is for the sauces.  I'm such a sauce girl, and Indian cuisine is often filled with amazing complex sauces.  This wasn't bad, but it wasn't particularly well spiced, so, it fell a bit flat.  I enjoyed combining it with some saag and chutney, but, it was a bit lacking on its own.  My mom didn't like it.  Also in the sauce was slivered almonds and plump raisins.

I had some of this for leftovers the next day, cold.  I think I actually liked it better this way.  My favorite of anything I tried.

$9.99 price was again fine for the portion.
Channa Masala. $8.99.
"Flavored chickpeas with tempered ginger."

Finding a dish for my father was hard.  He doesn't eat chicken, lamb, or any seafood, so I had to go vegetarian.  But he also doesn't eat eggplant, cauliflower, or peas.  And he was scared of paneer.

This left very few options, even given how extensive Taj-E-India's menu was.

He does like beans though, so even though I hate beans, and particularly chickpeas, I figured this would please him.

He did like it, and when we ordered food the second time, I asked him if he'd like it again, and he said yes.  That is success in my book.

I tried it, but, well, it was chickpeas, so there really was nothing here for me.  I guess I can say that they were nicely cooked, not too mushy, not too hard?  It was Ojan's favorite dish.
Paneer Shahi Korma. $9.99.
"Tender chunks of homemade cheese, cooked with nuts & cream in fresh herbs and spices."

On my second visit, I still went for paneer dish, even though I wasn't thrilled with it the first time.  Since I didn't want the spinach again, and my dad vetoed peas, that left tikka masala or shahi korma.  I flipped a coin and went for the shahi korma.

Like before, the paneer was just there.  I really wish it was seared slightly.

The sauce was pretty boring.  I even ordered it medium-hot, and there just wasn't much flavor to it at all.  One of the key things I like about Indian food is the spicing, but it was lost here.  It was creamy, and I liked having sauce for the bread, but ... no.

I didn't even want more of this when I had extra bread to use up.
Chicken Tikka Masala. $10.99.
"Tandoori chicken tikka in a tomato and butter sauce."

For Ojan and my mom, the chicken eaters, we got the chicken tikka masala.  I knew I wouldn't want the chicken, but I would gladly use the sauce for my bread.  The chunks of chicken looked good though, moist, and large.

Like the other dishes, it really just lacked flavor.  It was creamy, it was saucy, but there was just no spicing.  And again, I ordered it medium-hot.  The only real flavor was tomato, and it seemed not cooked down well enough, a bit too acidic.

Again, I didn't even want more of this to use up my bread, but my mom and Ojan both had seconds.
Dalmakhani. $8.99.
"Black lentils and beans, cooked in onions with tomatoes and cream."

And finally, on my second visit, I threw in another dish for my dad to try.  He hadn't ever had lentils before, but I described them as "little beans" and he was amenable to trying it.

I loathe lentils, but I tried a bit out of curiosity.  Again, no real spicing, again I ordered medium-hot.  The lentils were ... lentils.  My mom said she doesn't like lentils generally, but she liked this more than expected, so I guess it was a hit in some sense.

Sides

All curries and tandoori items are served with rice and chutneys on the side, which I really appreciated (well, not the rice, I don't ever eat rice with Indian food, I'm all about using the breads to soak up sauces), but having chutneys included was much appreciated.


Boiled basmati rice.
Since I don't like rice, I didn't try the basmati rice.  It nice that they included rice, but I always like to use naan instead of rice.  We had far more rice than we needed on both visits, but, at least they weren't stingy.
Chutneys: onion, mint, tamarind.
All dishes come with a trio of chutneys, which I really appreciated.  I'm such a sauce girl, and I always want to add chutneys to Indian food.  I just get grumpy that I usually have to add them on as an extra charge.

The mint and tamarind were both a bit sweet, a good to compliment the food.  The onion one on the other hand was quite spicy, which my dad liked, since he was able to use it to amp up the spice level in his dish.  On my second visit, when I didn't really like my curries, I ended up loading my bread up with the onion chutney, to at least have some flavor.

Overall, there was nothing notable about the chutney, besides the fact that they were included, which I do give major bonus points for.

Dessert

Ah, yes, dessert.  Of course this is the part I was excited for.  The dessert menu had kulfee, gulab jamun, ice cream, and kheer.
Kheer. $1.99.
"Traditional Indian rice pudding flavored with cardamom and raisins."

Since I love puddings, this was a no brainer.

The kheer was included inside my bag of food, alongside all the hot foods.  Minus a point for that, as it made it strangely warm.

The pudding was ... fine.  Pretty boring.  A bit thin and watery, the rice cooked ok but not remarkable, a sprinkle of pistachio just on top.  Not much flavor.

It wasn't bad, but I see no reason to get it again.

$1.99 price was great for a decent size container.
Taj E India Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato
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