380 W. Washington Ave., 251-9999
EntrÃes $9-$13. Lunch buffet 11:30 am-3 pm, dinner 5-10 pm daily. Checks and credit cards.
Maharani Indian Restaurant sits in one of those anonymous spots, on the ground floor of a block of condos, that is easy to miss and that feels a bit doomed. Other, forgotten, restaurants have already come and gone in the same space, and none seems to have left any mark. There is an oddly vacant, generic feel to the wraparound dining room, which sits to the side of a long bar and looks out on a cement courtyard.
But I like the fact that Maharani hasn't tried to dress the place up with the expected fallout of Indian prints and tchotchkes, maybe because there is an implied statement underscoring the lack of clutter. What, after all, does an ethnic restaurant mean any more? Chinese, Indian and Mexican food is as quintessentially American now as burgers and fries, and by refusing to mark their space with too many predictable souvenirs, Maharani's proprietors might be making that point.
Or maybe they just didn't want to invest in a lot of decor. In either case the clean look works, if only because you can focus on the food, and the food is good enough to break the curse of that cement courtyard and the traffic shooting by on West Washington. Just don't expect your appetizers to make much of a statement. Here Maharani does revert to clichÃ ' the almost inevitable vegetable and cheese pakoras and leaden samosa that deserve better than all that batter and sloppy frying.
Some other things could be better, too. The rogan josh is done in by some gristly, impenetrable cubes of lamb. A shrimp curry should feature more shrimp, and the generic curry sauce is Maharani's least interesting; it's soupy and tasteless, except for a slight spicy after-burn. And the chef's special biryani is overkill. The big heap of uncouth, too-large chicken chunks and tough lamb and beef strips strewn through the rice resemble a leftover muddle.
But don't give up. Maharani's menu is a snaking one, its prices are bargain basement (most entrÃes hovering around the $10 mark), and there are enough strong dishes to easily put together a reliable buffet. Start with the beautiful tandoori mixed grill, featuring juicy pieces of chicken and minced lamb kabobs sizzling in a tangle of onions and green pepper strips; only the cottony shrimp detracts. Then move on to the mixed vegetable korma, the mound of cauliflower, potatoes and zucchini roused by a delicate creamy curry made richer by diced cashews.
Then sample three chicken curries that flaunt the sheer inventive range of Indian cuisine. Butter chicken features strips of delicate tandoori chicken in a subtle cream sauce cut with a shiver of spiciness. Chicken moghlai offers chicken tikka in a tomato sauce augmented by big halved mushrooms. And chicken mango throws its boneless chicken pieces into a gingery, tart mango sauce that flirts with the sweet and the sour, and winds up seamlessly blending the two.
For dessert, try the mango milkshake, a new take on a signature Dairyland dish that tastes both very familiar and entirely fresh.