Why are we going to an Indian restaurant queries the guest. "What do we know of the style of food? For that matter, what do we know of the person who recommended it?"
Not much. Nothing really. None of us has been to India, it is not easy to pinpoint regional specialties from its website, and our knowledge of Indian cuisine has been largely garnered from Madhur Jaffrey's cookbooks, and some of London's cheapest curry houses. But two of us know a chap who is on first-name terms with at least two cricket umpires. And one of us believes her tastebuds know good from bad in any language.
The Maharaja has been part of the dining scene in Papanui for years, with its original site a long, narrow squeeze near the Harewood-Papanui roads junction. It was like dining on a train. The new Maharaja is in an old villa further down Papanui Rd. The house has been many things to many people but this last updo is the best yet. It has been elegantly rehabilitated into a series of gracious spaces, including a separate room that can be hired for private functions.
We are early arrivals and there is that welcoming sense of good hospitality: fragrant cooking aromas, a buzz of activity as tables are set and glasses polished and a warmth that envelops us.
Indian restaurants seem to have mostly given up on expecting diners to order a number of dishes of small and large quantities to share and the Maharaja is not alone in having divided its menu into entrees, mains and desserts. But the sharing of food is still an essential element of meals and, to begin, we are urged to consider snack platters. So two platters of prawn pakoras - large, juicy prawns coated in a batter so light they could have been tagged "tempura", but this is the food of India and the fritters are made from chickpea flour.
The samosas are large pyramids of vegetables or meat - more batter, more frying, but no bitterness, no overwhelming taste of onions, just melt-in-the-mouth lightness. A large selection of naan (soft tandoori breads) accompanied by raita, lime pickles and a tomato chutney completed our light-snacks-with-bottle of-wine course.
Our main courses are served in kadai - not the cooking vessels but small serving dishes with burners keeping the contents warm. Kadai gosht is a deep spinach green sauce with tender chunks of lamb.
Mango chicken presents a pretty sight - sweetish golden sauce and in the depths plenty of succulent chicken pieces. Both dishes have layers of flavours, but more sauce than solids. Rice and naan fill the corners but there is a feeling at the table that we could have included a couple of vegetarian options.
The dessert menu is small with kulfi the big feature, although - and this is possibly an acknowledgement of Maharaja's clientele - "decadent chocolate cake" is included.
The staff are unfailingly polite, pleasant and keen to please and it is noticeable the courtesies are extended to the children present.
Maharaja has hit on a flawless formula. A menu offering layered flavours and graduations of heat; new dishes as well as familiar offerings, a comprehensive beverage list (albeit with the wines marked up to the same astounding prices most restaurants now charge), an elegant ambience and all prices (other than bottles of wine) surprisingly low.
452 Papanui Rd
When? Lunch Mon-Fri, dinner Mon-Sun, from 5pm
Who? Families, couples, hotel/motel guests
How much? Two prawn pakora platters $17. Mango chicken 16.90. Matawhero chardonnay $45
Upside? Spacious elegance
Go again? Yes, frequently
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