An Indian restaurant in suburban Maryland is a welcome rarity. To have one like Maharaja -- beautiful, inexpensive, serving excellent food and located in Prince George's County -- is an extraordinary treat.
This is an unusually pretty place by any standard. The small dining room is quietly sumptuous, with muted, rust-colored matte walls, gold lacquer trim and framed Indian silk prints. A wall of mirrors cleverly magnifies the effect.
When we last tried Maharaja more than a year ago, we were highly impressed with the fried appetizers: pakoras, which are deep-fried vegetable fritters or chicken wings, and samosa, pastries filled with bits of vegetables.
More recent experience hasn't been so positive. We found the appetizers a bit greasy and, in the case of the samosas, the filling mushy. Mulligatawny soup, on the other hand, a lentil-based soup that had been only ordinary in the past, was excellent this time, rich, velvety and multiflavored.
When it comes to entrees, the shining light at Maharaja are the dishes cooked in the traditional northern Indian clay oven, the tandoor. The best of these is murg tandoori, a wonderful broiled chicken, marinated in yogurt, ghee (clarified butter) and spices and then charcoal-broiled in the oven. What flavor!
Note that the "half" portion at $5.75 is large enough for two if an appetizer and a curry are ordered as well. Another excellent tandoori dish is seekh kabab, skewers of ground lamb with a lovely mingling of pepper, spices and charbroiled flavor. But barra kabab, made with lamb cubes, has been dry and without much flavor.
The curries are only mildly hot, the better to appreciate their subtle, multidimensional flavors. Saag gosht, made with lamb and spinach, is appealing, the well-cooked spinach beautifully absorbing the flavors of meat and spices, and ginger flavor coming through.
Among the half-dozen or so vegetable curries, brinjhal bhurta -- a baked eggplant that's been nearly pureed and cooked with tomato, onion, coriander and ginger -- is a standout. Jhinga curry is shrimp in a wonderfully silky sauce that tastes of cream and cumin.
Biryani dishes -- rice cooked with meats, spices, almond slivers and raisins and flavored with cinnamon and other spices -- have been excellent lately, the rice delicate and the blend of flavors exquisite.
Indian breads are always a treat, and those at Maharaja are well prepared, particularly the ones baked in the tandoor -- tandoori roti and tandoori naan. The fried bread, poori, is also a gem, light and puffy.
Beverages? Good Indian beer, or lassi, that wonderful, creamy mixture of mango and sweetened yogurt. Dessert? Try the kulfi, an Indian ice cream that will taste odd but good to American palates, or gulab jamun, elegantly fried cheese balls served in a sugar syrup.
This is an unusually good restaurant, all the more so for its location. Don't miss it.