In a word: Plate filling in India.
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JM ate the mango chicken.
Jim ate the lamb vindaloo.
Monnie ate the beef masala.
Nichole ate the beef jalfrazie.
We got an order of stuffed nan as well.
The bill was about $60, or $15/person, plus tip.
JM, Monnie, and Nichole gave Maharaja an A- (see our grading rubric).
We're guilty of being undereducated about Indian restaurant food. We can't speak to authenticity or technique. About the only thing we know for sure is that we both like it. A lot. Which leaves us open to suggestion, even if we're aware that the great dining company, luxurious touches (chairs pulled out for us before the meal, hot hand towels after) and somewhat rundown atmosphere at Maharaja are all weighing more heavily on our experience than the objective quality of the food.
Complicating the matter is the observation that the Indian restaurants in Madison are all pretty much alike. Our server didn't have any advice on this front either. When we asked what was good, or if there was a house specialty, he simply said, "It's all great."
So we dug in. For starters, the customary poppadum and relishes; the red onion relish was mild, the tamarind sauce on the thin side, and the green relish heavy on the cilantro. The poppadums were plain but crisp, almost too airy. We also sampled a delicious, buttery naan stuffed with raisins, sesame seeds, pistachios, anise, cinnamon and other spices.
We tried to eat family-style, which can be tricky when there are different tolerances for spiciness at the table. To Maharaja's credit they did prepare the dishes to the heat levels we requested. Jim's vindaloo was the hottest, making anyone who dared try it break out in a sweat. It still had a good flavor underneath the heat. The beef jalfrazie, a stir-fry of meat, peas, peppers and onions in tomato sauce, was second-hottest. The beef was tender, the flavors melding perfectly.
On the milder end, the mango chicken was sweet and succulent even if it was originally mistaken for the beef masala by JM in one of his less proud moments. The flavors played across the whole palate, and would have been even more interesting if we'd ordered it hot. In the beef masala, the spices were good but the sauce-to-meat ratio was high. Vegetables would have been a good addition to the dish.
So, Maharaja along the Indian spectrum seems to be quite good, but nothing really blew us all away.