It's odd that Royal Oak had no Indian restaurant for years, but that hardship, forcing ROers to travel as far afield as Berkley or Ferndale for their biryanis and puris, is ended with the return of an old favorite. Bangladesh native Abdul Ullah ran a Moti Mahal on Main Street for 10 years, beginning in 1981, and finds that nearly 20 years later, he's getting repeat customers from those olden days.
Those more mature customers may be revisiting partly out of gratitude. In 1981, not all readers will remember, the Detroit-area pickings for adventurous or even mildly exploratory diners were slim (though we've always had the Middle East and Greektown.). The Inn Season Café brought an exotic concept — vegetarianism! — to Royal Oak early that year. The Blue Nile opened in a Detroit storefront in 1984. But in a general desert of food options, a new Indian restaurant in the environs was cause for celebration.
Today, it still is, though the competition has multiplied tenfold. Manager Joe Ullah says the family researched the market and decided to offer plenty of vegetarian and vegan dishes — anything a meat-eater can order can also be done with vegetables. Opened Feb. 3, by the end of the month Moti Mahal ("Pearl Palace") was full on weekend nights, turning over 110 dinner-eaters and serving more than 60 for the $7.95 lunchtime buffet, all-you-can-eat, including soup and dessert.
The place looks good, completely remodeled after the demise of the former occupant, Nepalese Kathmandu Chullo. Salmon walls with a frieze of elephants, horses and monkeys, white napkins and red tablecloths, fresh flowers: It's fancy enough for Royal Oak but not too fancy to be your neighborhood favorite.
Some diners may be disappointed that most of the dishes are labeled "mild"; the kormas are "very mild." Spice levels are easily adjusted, though; just ask. Our waiter offered to go all the way with a tindaloo, not on the menu, "if you want to cry." I sampled a vegetable vindaloo that was indeed "very hot" and a "medium hot" Madras curry that was at my outer limits for still being able to taste the food itself.
The meal starts auspiciously with a couple of free papadams — crisp and strongly lentil-flavored — and three tasty dipping sauces. A mango lassi, seldom a mistake, is properly vibrant in color and flavor.
The "Chef Appetizer" is a selection of nine or 10 bhajis and vegetable samosas, all tender and crunchy as appropriate. Although it's hard to resist these traditional starters, I recommend the mulligatawny soup as well, and the dal puri, which is listed under the appetizers rather than the breads. Everyone loves Indian breads — especially the fried ones — and I couldn't help thinking of a lentil-based doughnut as I scarfed the puri. The Ullahs' version of mulligatawny is tomato-based, and it's medium-spicy, complex, mostly puréed but slightly chunky, sprinkled with cilantro.
The entrées and side dishes I tried were generally rich — lots of ghee? This was especially true of sag muttar paneer — peas and spinach with firm cubes of Indian farmer cheese, quite buttery tasting — and lamb Kashmir, to which Ullah adds almonds and dried fruit. The latter will be my choice when I go back — perhaps in the $8.95 vegetable version rather than the $11.95-$13.95 meat or shrimp choices.
That is, if I don't try the more atypical offerings. Among the usual kormas, dhansaks, and tandoori specials, Moti Mahal offers jalfrazies and dupiazas and patias. The descriptions make it hard to know how much the various dishes differ: "cooked with green chilies, tomatoes and green peppers with a variety of herbs and spices" vs. "a special sauce sautéed with freshly ground spices, herbs, onions, tomatoes, and green peppers." I feel certain the waiters will help us out.
Also delicious was a salmon masala "cooked with a carefully selected array of fresh tomatoes, onions and spices" — it was smoky and rich. A side dish of begun (eggplant) masala was not as tender as I expected — eggplant seldom requires much chewing — but nice and hot at "medium," with a mostly cumin flavor.
For dessert, vanilla ice cream with a mango sauce was dreamy, better than a traditional rosh malai, three balls of paneer soaked in clotted cream. Roshugullah (paneer in syrup) and gulab jamun (dough in rosewater syrup) are also possible.
The Ullahs plan on sidewalk tables when it warms up, claiming they're the first Indian restaurant in the area to serve outside. They're open seven days for lunch and dinner.
Jane Slaughter dines for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.