A favorite makes a comebackNow you see it ― now you don’t ― now you do again.
Back in 2002, I published a Seoul restaurant guide, “Seoul Food Finder,” still available and a bargain at only (enough self-promotion ― get on with the review. ―Ed.). One of the top two Indian restaurants in said tome was Myeongdong’s Taj. To my shock and horror, this excellent establishment closed soon after publication, to be replaced by, of all things, a Chinese restaurant (just what Seoul needed).
Imagine my astonishment when I was recently informed that Taj had reopened last September. Frankly, I doubted this intelligence ― how often is a restaurant reincarnated? ― but felt compelled to take a trip. I can officially confirm the rumors: Taj is back.
Taj Mark II offers a rather more chic interior than Mark I. There are hanging chainmail drapes and subdued lighting, much of it softened behind muslin screens. Hindu brass statuary ― Ganesh, Kali and the rest of the crew ― is tucked away in alcoves. The ceiling is the currently modish bare concrete and exposed piping; dominant colors are black, beige and gray. It is stylish, all right, but I rather miss the idiosyncratic kitsch of the Taj of yore, which boasted full-sized models of elephant heads, crocodiles and other subcontinental fauna.
The menu is not as extensive as I remember it, but does offer a fair range of predominantly northern Indian dishes. We were there on a weekend so ate a la carte, but on weekdays there are three-course lunch sets for 9,000 won ($7.90) and six-course sets for 18,000 won. That strikes me as superb value. But to return to our meal:
We bypass appetizers and directly order a selection of mains. First, from the tandoor comes chicken tikka malai (20,000 won). This is chunks of chicken, very lightly cooked, with an optional lemon drizzle, a mint and yogurt sauce and a side salad. It is much more delicate than the tandoori dishes I am used to, both in flavor (delightful) and in serving size (rather more miserly than one would expect for the price).
Then, curries: palak paneer (spinach and cottage cheese; 16,000 won), yellow daal (yellow lentils; 15,000 won) and rara gosht (minced lamb; 18,000 won), all served in attractive copper pots. The spinach curry is a fine dark green, but surprisingly light, well filled with large chunks of cottage cheese and with a touch of (I think) aniseed in the flavor.
Some daal dishes are watery; this is not the case here. It is creamy in texture, and of the three curries, is the only one with an afterburner effect; the red chili in the dish is discernible. The gosht is the heaviest of the three: a hearty sludge, with chunks of mutton as well as the minced stuff. There is just the right amount of oil in here, and the whole is as full-flavored as it is substantial. All three are recommended.
To mop up curries, bread is essential. The nan (2,000 won) is pleasingly light ― not doughy, as is sometimes the case in competing establishments ― but is also a somewhat smaller serving than one gets elsewhere. The lacha parantha (3,500) is a layered bread, fried in ghee: excellent.
For desserts, we try gulab jamu (donut in syrup; 2,200 won) and shahi phirni (rice pudding; 2,000 won). The jamu passes muster, but the pudding is terrific: a nutty, grainily textured offering, with candied fruit jellies and a sprinkling of cardamom for flavor.
There is an extensive wine list, as well as beers and soft drinks. Indian teas and yogurt drinks are also offered.
One irritation: The menu offers descriptions of the dishes in Korean, but not in English. Seasoned curry fiends will be familiar with most dishes here; non-Korean speaking novices will not. Fortunately, the waiters, dressed in traditional finery, are Indian, and, being friendly fellows, will happily explain all in fluent English.
So what happened to the original Taj? Apparently, the owner thought a Chinese restaurant would be more profitable, but this was not the case and there was an outcry from the local dining community. He changed his mind and Taj is back ― hopefully, to stay.
Verdict: Light, moderately oily and judiciously spiced Indian grub: recommended. A la carte prices are standard for Indian food in Seoul (i.e., high), but lunch sets appear to be excellent values. The fact that Taj came back from the dead raises hope that some of Seoul’s other fine establishments (The Bar, LaDore, Grand Havana, WynDyn ― the list is long) that closed before their time may one day return from the grave. We can only hope.
English menu: Dishes’ names are in English, but not their descriptions.
Location: Myeong-dong; very close to Myeongdong Cathedral, in an alley next to the Royal Hotel, in the YWCA building.
Subway: Myeong-dong (line No. 4) or Euljiro 1-ga (line No. 2).
Hours: Weekdays, 11:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m. and 6-9:30p.m.; weekends, 11:30 a.m.-10:30 p.m.
Telephone: (02) 776-0677.
Web site: thetaj.co.kr
Parking: Available (a rarity in Myeongdong).
Dress: Smart casual.
by Andrew Salmon