Presumably they start with some over-salted papadums ($2.95), and the three standard chutneys — a tangy tamarind, fresh onion with red pepper, and a mint/cilantro/hot-green-pepper one that's my favorite. Probably they don't order a potato samosa ($5.95), although this is a good rendition, dry fried pyramids stuffed with spiced potato and a few peas. Maybe they get the jeera scallops ($9.95), another creamy, oddly comforting dish despite the exotic promise of saffron and "royal cumin seeds," which I thought might be the resinous black cumin, but are the same cumin seeds Texas peasants put into chili con carne. Jeera scallops are actually a great dish — better than 90 percent of the seafood appetizers in expensive bistros and twice as filling. They just lack that memorable, original quality.
As side dishes, the standard cucumber raita ($2.95) is a good yogurt salad. Anar and corn raita ($3.95), with kernels of corn and grains of pomegranate, is a great yogurt salad.
Absent a liquor license, said to be pending, the Maharaja is missing the boat on subcontinental soft drinks. They do have lassi yogurt drinks ($3.95) in "sweet," "salty," and "mango," but the last is a very sweet smoothie. Desserts are a promising list. We had some pistachio kulfi ($3.95) — the original ice cream. Like the quartz watches invented in Switzerland but developed for market in Japan, ice cream was invented in Iraq or India but developed in Italy. The Maharaja rice pudding ($3.95) is not any more royal than others in town, but the mango pudding ($5.95) is finer stuff, and the ras malai ($4.95), a cheese-based sweet in sweeter milk, is one of the more aristocratic available.
Service at this essentially undiscovered restaurant is quite good because it doesn't fill up on a weeknight, or at least not yet. The decor is so elaborate as to be somewhat embarrassing, dazzling ornaments and patterns and richly carved wood tables and chairs. The chairs are the weak part — genuinely uncomfortable over the length of a dinner for all but the most flexible and relaxed yoga students. Again, without the crowds that will eventually get upstairs to this location, the sound is mild and relaxing even if the seating is not.
It is hard to advise the owners of an entirely competent if somewhat incoherent restaurant. People do like stories with their food, but I can't advise downplaying such an excellent chicken tikka masala even if it is a dish more popular in Britain than in Punjab. I'm sure the rice has a story, but I found it bland. On the other hand, I'd like a shot at spicier food than I was served, even if I do look and talk like an outsider. Maybe someone could set up a business selling "I'm all right with it" T-shirts in various languages. "This guy has pink skin but he eats like a Cajun" — you could get that into idiomatic Hindi, right?
57 JFK Street (top floor), Cambridge (Harvard Square)
open Monday–Friday, 11:30 am–10:30 pm; Saturday and Sunday, 12–10:30 pm
AE, MC, Vi
validated discount parking, University and Elliot garages
Ramped street level access. Valet parking available
Robert Nadeau can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.