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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Friday, April 25, 2003

Indian food the way their mom always made it

By Matthew Gray
Advertiser Restaurant Critic

Prince Arafat, in charge of the café's kitchen, prepares vegetable masala, a spiced dish of mixed veggies. The restaurant owners based their menu on their mother's traditional recipes. She is the maharani (queen) for whom the Mo'ili'ili restaurant is named.

Eugene Tanner • The Honolulu Advertiser

Cafe Maharani

2509 S. King St.

Daily, 5-10 p.m.


My first introduction to Indian food was in London, 1976, while traveling throughout Europe for the first time. There, curry houses abound, sometimes two or three to a block, imparting mysterious and sensual aromas that homogenize with the urban sprawl.

Since then, whenever I smell cardamom, saffron, nutmeg, basmati rice, roasted coriander seeds, chilies and cloves, fragrant memories transport me back to the tony neighborhood of Chelsea.

Although London has long been considered the best city in the world for Indian food (yes, even better than Indian cities because of the abundant variety of ingredients), you can also do quite well in New York, Toronto, San Francisco and Los Angeles for a fine Indian repast. In Honolulu, you have few choices for sampling this cuisine.

Cafe Maharani on King Street is a little more than 3 years old. Two brothers run this establishment and chose the word maharani (queen) to honor their mother, whose traditional recipes they use.

I'd recommend skipping the appetizers here. They're almost all deep-fried and lack interesting texture, flavor, color and shape. The vegetable pakoras ($3.95) come five to an order. At their best, pakoras are vegetable fritters, loosely packed and flavorful with spices. Here they were tightly bound, lacking the delicacy they deserve.

The tikka items (small pieces of spiced and fried food, $3.95 per order) such as the fish and beef missed the mark — the fish version minced so fine it resembled canned tuna in taste and texture, the beef version suffering the same overly processed fate.

The eggplant tikka was much better, though, pieces of marinated eggplant dipped in corn flour before being fried. This one had texture and nice flavor.

The samosas appetizer ($3.95) is the best choice here. These are crisp pastries filled with mildly spiced vegetables.

Samosas are served with two small dishes for dipping: a tamarind-based hot sauce, and raita, a cool yogurt mixture flavored with cucumber.

The shahi chicken korma ($7.95) is a house specialty. Marinated in yogurt and spiced very mildly, this dish is fine for the spice-shy. For me, it was too tame in flavor, and was unappealing visually because the sauce looked curdled instead of smooth and creamy.

A better chicken dish to try would be either the karahi laawab or the masala curry ($8.95 each). The laawab utilizes fresh ginger, garlic, bell peppers and green chilis in its flavoring base; the masala curry combines onion, ginger, garlic and tomato. Each has a touch of boldness that in many ways defines what Indian cooking is all about.

Lamb dishes are popular in Indian cooking because they are is suited to long periods of moist-heat cooking, making the meat tender and succulent. Lamb saag ($10.95) is a yummy mild dish of cubed meat cooked in creamed spinach. For heat-seeking folks such as myself, try the lamb vindaloo ($10.95), a very spicy and tangy experience.

The shrimp dopiaza ($10.95) was quite good. Sauteed shrimp are finished with mixed vegetables in a rich buttery tomato-flecked sauce. Fish malabari ($11.95) is another worthwhile offering, taking the fish of the day and braising it in a coconut milk, onion and tomato sauce.

I was especially fond of the vegetarian dishes, particularly the palak panir ($8.95), a homemade cheese (texture similar to chewy baked tofu) cooked with creamed spinach. I also enjoyed the eggplant masala, a large plate of fried eggplant pieces cooked in an onion and tomato sauce.

A dessert offering that I enjoyed is gulab jamun ($3.50), cool fried milk balls soaked in very sweet syrup. For a dollar more, you can have homemade custard yogurt with that. Kheer ($3) is sweet and creamy rice pudding, more runny than firm, with golden raisins on top for contrast. If you want something creamy and sweet to drink, order a lassi ($2.95), a yogurt-based drink that comes in several flavors: mango (my favorite), lemon, pineapple, rose water and French vanilla.

Maharani is toned-down Indian fare, not especially bold in flavor, but suitable and tasty enough for those who want to try something different. Service is adequate and as helpful as possible in suggesting which dishes to order.

Reach Matthew Gray at mgray@honoluluadvertiser.com.