Maharaja, South Indian Restaurant, London Road, Liverpool Nov 23 2007 by Laura Davis, Liverpool Daily Post Gordon Ramsay rates it highly. So what did Laura Davis make of the Maharaja?...
THE sight of a row of pristine Morris Oxfords, proud-horned oxen pulling a cart and the rudimentary mattress where Gandhi once slept were enough to make my visit to India completely worthwhile, despite the 20-or-so-hours round trip for what was basically a long weekend.
And while my brief trip two years ago was merely a taster for the country, it is one I will never forget. They say that the sense of smell has the power to conjure an experience from memory with a single sniff. That is the effect curryhouses have on me - a snapshot of a pool surrounded by palm trees or slum-lined street vibrating with energy popping into my mind mid-bhaji.
But the food you are served in many Indian restaurants in the UK is a disappointing version of the dishes you get to taste in the country of their origin, which is why we decided to try Maharaja, on Liverpool's London Road.
A rainy evening on London Road is hardly as exotic as technicolour Mumbai, but this restaurant came highly recommended - by television chef Gordon Ramsay, no less, who ate there several times while filming in the city. Maharaja's menu comes from South India, where the cuisine is distinctive to that of the North (from where much of the Indian food we are used to in Britain originated) and so contains many dishes that even curryhouse regulars may not recognise.
We started our meal by sharing two dishes - the Fish Cakes (£3.95) and the Chicken Butter Fry (£3.95). There was plenty to choose from, with a good selection suitable for vegetarians and the option of beginning with a tray of pre-meal snacks served with home-made chutneys and pickles.
The fishcakes were made from mashed potato and cassava (the root of a woody shrub that is a staple food of the Kerala region), rolled in breadcrumbs then fried.
Despite the way they were cooked, the cakes were not at all greasy. They were really spicy but the flavours still came through.
The chicken butter fry was less hot, and so was more appropriate for my tastebuds which, in contrast to my macho intentions when it comes to spicy food, are decidedly wimpy.
It was made with good cuts of meat - tender with no fat - and had been marinated in spices. Again, this dish was fried, so no points for healthy eating, but there was no grease to spoil the texture.
Although Maharaja is a large restaurant - it seats 100 covers and has a function room for a further 30 - and was not full, there was a good atmos- phere. On a nearby table, a group of people were celebrating a birthday and there were various couples and family groups also enjoying a meal. The decor is simple. Large windows looking out on to London Road and the Odeon Cinema, white tablecloths and the odd piece of Indian art. It all looks very clean if a little uninspired.
But this is not a place you go to for the interior design. The food is so remarkable that you barely notice your surroundings.
At Maharaja, each curry is cooked individually from fresh ingredients which really makes a difference to the flavour. Their traditional recipes have been handed down from generation to generation and cannot be found in recipe books.
For a main course, my friend chose Nadan chicken curry (£6.99) with a side order of basmati rice (£1.95). He again commented favourably on the pieces of meat and said the masala sauce, which contained onions and green ginger, was pleasantly spicy without overpowering the flavours of ginger and coriander.
I picked the masala dosa (£6.95) which I had sampled for breakfast during my trip to India and have been wanting to try again ever since.
In Mumbai, the paper-thin pancake had come in a rounded shape, but this was cylindrical and about a foot long, if not longer, and took up most of the table.
The rice pancake melted in the mouth and the potatoes inside were a warming accompaniment for the sambar (lentil and seasonal vegetable curry).
There was far too much to get through, but I wasn't disappointed - it was as delicious as I remember from my holiday.
It's just a shame there were no Morris Oxfords or exotic-looking farm animals on the street outside as we left. Maharaja, 34-36 London Road, Liverpool Tel: 0151 709 2006 Menu: South Indian cuisine Decor: Bright and cheerful Service: Friendly Value: Very good The Bill: £35.78, including a bottle of wine firstname.lastname@example.org
Gold spice Gordon Ramsay ate at the Maharaja a while back and he now he swears by it. But will AA Grill have a bad word to say about the north-west's only south Indian restaurant?
IN the sixties, Liverpool's London Road hummed with nightlife. Now it mostly hums. Then, London Road was all swanky restaurants (you could say "swanky" in 1967) and cabaret clubs where they queued round the corner to see Tom Jones and the Beatles. Now, they only queue at night in that part of town for the bus to London.
The Maharaja is responsible for the best Indian food in town, and the only good reason to be in London Road after dark
As the sixties faded, so did the area's status as the place to go on a Friday night. London Road's long slide was partially addressed with a facelift for TJ Hughes and its neighbours a few years ago, but the Lime Street end is still a sorry story of decline.
A beacon amidst the gloom, the Maharaja is responsible for the best Indian food in town and the only good reason to be in London Road after dark these days. Nearby buildings display the scars of fire damage, while signs promoting local businesses - "The Picture Hous" "Tetley Bit" - have all got something missing. Rather like the figures we saw on the street: Shells of former human beings who shambled past our window table now and again. One, the better for drink, stared in, mouthing and pointing ostentatiously at our food. I don't know what he was getting at but I don't suppose he did either.
My last visit to an Indian restaurant was a family affair that began in ignominious fashion. Behind our table, a life-size representation of a Hindu god watched over the room in a classic benign pose, his right palm held outward, fingers pointing up. Our six-year-old took this as an invitation to high five him, and, to our horror, he duly accepted. Fortunately, nobody noticed my child's act of sacrilege against a revered deity. This time I left the kids at home. The only gods at the Maharaja were in the kitchen preparing the food.
The standard of the décor is in inverse proportion to that of the cuisine, but this actually makes a refreshing change from classier joints where the look is incredible and the food inedible. These places come and go in Liverpool and I can almost hear the owners going over the pre-launch publicity for their latest business opportunity. "Hello, Jane, I'm looking through the press release you've prepared for the restaurant. Let's see, you've bigged up the prime location, that's good. The chandeliers are Murano - that needs mentioning. Mmm, can we say "exclusive" rather than "luxury". Actually, say both. For God's sake, you haven't mentioned "iconic" ANYWHERE! What? I don't care, everyone else gets an "iconic", so we're having one! Now, have we left anything else out? Oh yes, the food . . ." A pal had commended the Maharaja's wine list to me, in particular a New Zealand gerwurtztraminer, which she said goes down a treat with the food. I suggested to Matty, my curry-loving companion, that we share a bottle. "Nah," he said. "I'm too thirsty to drink wine." That's all right, I offered, I'll get two bottles. He was having none of it and we settled for Kingfisher beer; bottles for me, draught for him. Cobra is also available by the pint.
The food here is from southern India - Kerala, to be precise - and the menu bears no relation to traditional high street curry houses. Much of the cooking is done in water rather than ghee, so there's no danger of an oil slick with your chicken vindaloo. In fact, there's no danger of a chicken vindaloo; here, the emphasis is on the flavour, not the ferocity, of the spices. Pre-meal snacks (£2.50) are a carnival of shapes, textures and tastes, from achappam - flower-shaped crunches of rice flour, coconut milk and sesame seeds - to mini versions of the dinner-plate poppadom. Pickles and chutneys (£3) are fresh and full of contrasts: coriander chutney, chunks of lemon in its juices, a dishful of spiced, chopped-up garlic.
Then comes kerala bonda (£2.95), spiced potato balls fried in chickpea flour batter. They could have stoked the fire a bit but Matty thought me picky and it did come with good coconut chutney. Succulent King prawns (£4.50), marinated in spices and deep-fried in a dry, light batter, were lovely, as was fish sauce for dipping. Chicken olathu curry (£6.95) is a well-balanced amalgam of chicken pieces, coconut slices, chillies, turmeric and tomato. Lamb stew (£7.95) is just that: with potatoes, carrots and onions in there alongside ginger, chillies and cardamom. All cooked in coconut milk. It helps if you like coconut - Kerala does, after all, mean land of coconuts.
The mains come with a tasty tamarind rice and a crumbly, nothing-special Malabar paratha. From limited side dishes, we picked at an unexciting bean and carrot thoran, when we should have chosen from a far more promising vegetarian range. The waiters, willing and well-informed, paced the service nicely, not rushing it through as usually happens when there are more waiters than eaters. On London Road, the rents are not at a premium but passing trade is, and that's the dilemma for the Maharaja: if they move to a part of town where people go, they will pay for the privilege. The Maharaja has survived the desolation of its location by turning out meals that are of a consistently high standard and - at fifty quid for two, including service - amazingly good value. The food, like the place, is not fancy, but tasty and satisfying. I always think it's the kind of food you might get in somebody's home - but Madhur Jaffrey's home rather than, say, Pete Wylie's.
8/10 Food 4/5 Service 3/5 Ambience Total bill, including service: £50
Maharaja South Indian Restaurant, 34-36 London Road, Liverpool L3 5NF 0151 709 2006
DEVOTEES of the kind of late night curry-and-beer pit-stops which strip the roof of your mouth and the lining from your stomach be warned.
The Maharaja is not that kind of curry house. For a start you won't find any tandoori, madras, biriani or jalfreezi. And if you hanker after a peshwari naan you will be disappointed. Still, as I discovered on a visit to the London Road restaurant with a couple of friends, the disappointment of a dopiaza-free zone is short-lived and soon forgotten.
The Maharaja describes itself as the north west's first and only South Indian restaurant, based on the cooking of Kerala - land of spices. And the difference starts at the door of the restaurant, which sits on a corner close to the Odeon cinema and has big glass windows overlooking the road, rather like a showroom. It means the inside, which boasts white walls, blue carpet, mirrored pillars and not a hint of flock wallpaper, is light and airy if a little like a converted insurance office.
Being shortly after 6pm, we were only the second set of diners in the place. We were soon put at ease - and at a spacious round table by a window - by the waiting staff who offer friendly, if at times a little chaotic, service - main meals being served before the starters were cleared for example. Having worked up an appetite walking to the restaurant, we were keen to get stuck in. There was a fair selection for each course, and the ingredients, more Thai-sounding than your typical Indian restaurant, all sounded deeply exotic and delicious. Added to which, my vegetarian friend was in seventh heaven with starters and main courses clearly divided into vegetarian and meat/fish, and said she had a vast choice compared to other restaurants she had been to. So far, so good.
Intrigued by the "light and crispy" pre-meal snacks we ordered a tray (£3), together with some of the Maharaja's pickles and chutneys (£2.50). Forget a simple poppadom with a bit of mango chutney. We got a rainbow of colours and range of textures, with items including achappam (a flower-shaped crispy snack made of rice flower, coconut milk and sesame seeds) and accompaniments including coriander chutney and lemon pickle. For people who just can't decide between dishes the restaurant does special Sadhya (banquet) meals with a chef's selections of starters, main courses and pud. We opted for a straight choice.
While I picked the kerala bonda (£2.95) followed by a prawn manga curry (£8.50), my companions went for katharika (aubergines in chick pea flower batter - £2.95), chicken stew (6.95), and the maharaja kayi curry (£4.95). The kerala bonda - potato balls laced with ginger, curry leaves and coriander - had a real kick, offset by a subtle coconut chutney. Coconut featured heavily in my main course as well with a good number of king prawns in a moreish sauce of turmeric, chillies, green mango, coconut milk and mustard seeds. The coconut rice I picked to go with it came in an attractive upturned bowl shaped and was wonderfully delicate. My meat-eating friend's chicken stew was also delicate, cooked again in coconut milk and flavoured with cinnamon and cardamom, although she reported the paratha bread she ordered with it a little heavy and not tasting of much. The kayi curry, vegetables cooked with exotic spices, was also a hit with the vegetarian among us. Despite our post-work hunger we found we were too full to even contemplate a pudding, even with the promise of home made ice cream and other goodies. Maybe next time.
With the bill coming in someway shy of £50 for three of us, including a pint of draft Kingfisher beer each, the Maharaja is a treat we plan to repeat again soon.