Maharani introduces the subtle spices of the subcontinent to the sizzling restaurant scene in Hudson
There was a time in my life when out of necessity, I ate Indian food five nights a week. Broke and in my twenties, I had the good fortune to live half a block from Manhattan’s East 6th Street, which at the time was home to at least half a dozen Indian restaurants, each one cheaper than the next. The food was great, but I was happy when my restaurant selections were not based solely on location and economics.
Years later, after moving upstate, I thought longingly of those Indian dinners. Up here, ethnic eateries were hard to find, usually required a bit of travel, and were not always worth the drive. Happily, this has changed in the Hudson Valley; ethnic food has become more accessible, and more importantly, the food has gotten much better. Still, I am always happy to hear of a new restaurant opening, especially if it’s a short drive away.
Maharani, housed in the historic St. Charles Hotel in Hudson, opened in May of 2005. Before opening Maharani, owner Bill Mangat and his wife Harbans operated the Park Place Bistro in the same location. On Wednesday nights they hosted a “Taste of India” buffet (cooking all the food themselves); fueled by the positive response, they decided to close the bistro and open Maharani instead. Two chefs were hired — one specializing in northern Indian cuisine, the other southern. The dining room was transformed with objects brought from India by Bill’s mother.
Today, brightly colored festoons of fabric billow down from the dining room’s ceiling. Peacock feathers, musical instruments, and paintings adorn the walls. Amidst the standard dining tables are two low tables, anchored on each side by ornately upholstered, fringed ottomans. One of these tables is located in a small, intimate, and inviting alcove in a corner of the room behind a beaded curtain. Unfortunately, my three friends and I couldn’t squeeze into the alcove, so we settled at another table and busied ourselves with the basket of pappadam and tamarind dipping sauce that quickly appeared.
The service was warm and attentive throughout the meal. Within minutes of sitting down, two of us were already taking the first sips of Kingfisher, an Indian beer, while watching the waitress uncork a bottle of 2004 Chilean Cabernet ($16). Though limited in size, all selections on the wine list are very reasonably priced.
We quickly decided on appetizers. The vegetable platter ($7) included three selections from the starter menu: samosas, vegetable pakora, and Aloo Tikki. Mulli- gatawny soup ($3), an Indian classic, and an additional order of samosas ($4) completed our order.
The samosas — pyramid-shaped pastry turnovers filled with potatoes and peas — had good texture, but were a little bland. The vegetable pakora, a selection of lightly battered zucchini, onions, eggplant, and quartered mushrooms, was simple but satisfying and fried to perfection. It was accompanied by three dipping sauces — tamarind, the cucumber-in-yogurt dish called raita, and a delicious green sauce heavily scented with cilantro and mint. But the Aloo Tikki ($4), patties made with spiced potatoes and herbs, lacked any significant spice, and the soup, a hearty purÃ©e of yellow lentils topped with a chiffonade of cilantro, was not as flavorful as I would have hoped.
Perhaps we should have paid a bit more attention to the mission statement on the front of the menu, which states: “For our guests who are unfamiliar with Indian food, you may think that all Indian food is hot and spicy. The truth is, you can definitely find hot and spicy dishes on the menu (try one of our vindaloo dishes) but for the most part the unique character and taste of Indian cuisine is a subtle blending of spices, herbs, seasonings, vegetables and cream that leaves people with a desire for more.” We were indeed desiring more; more complexity and depth of flavor. We ordered a condiment to spice things up — achar, a mix of hot and spicy Indian pickles — which enhanced the appetizers by helping to conjure up the dormant seasonings.
We ordered three breads with our entrÃ©es: garlic naan, Peshawari naan ($4), and poori ($3).Oftentimes breads will replace utensils in an Indian meal — they’re perfect for dipping in and scooping up the food. (We stuck with our forks and knives.) The entrÃ©es, however, proved to be a big improvement over the starters. The house special, Cochin Prawns ($21), were delicious. Bathed in a mint and yogurt sauce, the large shrimp studded with charred red chili peppers and black mustard seeds were perfectly complemented by the coolness of the raita flecked with grated carrots. The complexity and contrast of flavors melded together to create an extremely satisfying dish.
The lamb Madras ($15) paired tasty pieces of meat with a velvety, full-bodied sauce that had a slight kick and beautiful color (think Crayola’s burnt sienna). Served in a lovely copper bowl, Aloo Gobi ($9), a vegetarian selection, was loaded with cauliflower and potatoes, and finished with onions, strands of fresh ginger, and bits of tomatoes. Tandoori chicken ($13) arrived on a sizzling platter with julienned carrots, onions, and lemon slices. This dish can often be overcooked, so the four pieces of moist and flavorful marinated chicken were a welcome surprise.
We ended our meal with two traditional Indian desserts: Gulab Jaman ($4), a perfectly fine rendition of sponge cake rounds soaked in sweet syrup; and kheer ($3), a rather uninspired version of rice pudding. Our third selection was kulfi ($4), homemade ice cream. Pale orange mango ice cream, cut into pyramid shapes and laced with ribbons of bright orange, was not only a visual delight, but a refreshing end to a good, if uneven, dinner.
By playing it safe with this kind of cuisine, the chefs’ creations can be uninspiring. Maharani’s food shines when they allow themselves to be more adventurous. I have faith that the chefs will approach their task with a bit more daring as Maharani matures and becomes firmly established in the Hudson Valley.