It’s not every day you see a small restaurant chain listing locations in Mumbai, Dubai and Houston. But that’s the geographical distribution of Maharaja Bhog, a network of vegetarian thali-style restaurants that recently opened an outpost on the Southwest Freeway at Gessner.
Maharaja Bhog’s website assures us it’s a “brand,” as opposed to a mere restaurant, and the Houston version has the kind of sleek, slightly corporate look that hints at investment capital: striking modern pendant lamps; banquettes of pearlized gold; a soothing palette of silver and gold. The tabletops gleam with bright stainless steel platters, each one studded with nine stainless steel cups.
Those platters are the hallmark of the thali style of service, and they are stationed to receive an array of curries, dry fries, desserts, pickles and chutneys, with rice, salad and flatbreads finding space where they can. The variety, coupled with the mix-and-match opportunities, makes this an entertaining way to eat.
Maharaja Bhog’s revolving menus of vegetarian specialties from the northwestern states of Gujarat and Rajasthan, which change daily, make the prospects even more entertaining for diners who are not from the subcontinent. Adventurous eaters and those in search of a broader knowledge of Indian food are almost certain to find dishes they haven’t tried before, or combinations they never imagined they’d like.
Take the Tirangi Rasgulla Sabzi that ended up on my platter the other night, when the restaurant was thronged with a well-dressed crowd celebrating the Diwali festival. Rasgulla are little dessert dumplings made from sweetened paneer, the Indian cottage cheese. Combining them with a savory herbed yogurt-based broth sounded like a bad idea. To my delight, the pairing fascinated. I asked for seconds when one of the numerous ladle-bearing servers, dressed in embroidered burgundy-colored vests and loose matching pants, came by with a multicompartment pot holding the day’s four featured vegetable dishes. Then, to my own amazement, I asked for thirds.
Some of the staff are better versed than others on exactly what they’re serving on a given day. If you happen to be sitting in a booth rather than a freestanding table, you can check the digital wall pad that runs a continuous Maharaja Bhog commercial, and eventually the day’s menu will flash by, all too briefly. Or you can consult with one of the eagle-eyed hosts, a scholarly looking gentleman or a slightly more forbidding woman dressed in a sparkly sari or salwar kameez. They’ll tell you what’s what, or explain the key fact — one that was new to me — that in India, the sweet dessert dishes are eaten right along with the spicy savory ones, the better to enjoy the contrasts.
About the heat levels here: you’ll be asked upfront if you’d like your food spicy or mild. Try the spicy versions if you, like many Houstonians, enjoy the thrills of capsaicin. I’ve found the food here to be pleasantly hot when appropriate, but just to an agreeable eye-watering, nose-sniffling degree; and there are plenty of dishes to cool you down, including a beguiling herbed buttermilk drink freely poured from circulating pitchers.
I loved the chile spunk of the Kabuli Channa curry one day, seasoned with coriander, cardamom and a current of cinnamon, the variety of chickpeas smaller and denser than the usual kind. And the innocent-looking sweetened yellow Gujarati dal, a lentil dish, made me gasp with surprise with its delayed wallop. (To my amusement, the friend who accompanied me found that Gujarati dal “bland,” although I liked its notes of mustard seed and pepper.)
Maharaja Bhog really does rotate its menu daily, at least where the preparations of the two appetizers and four featured vegetable dishes are concerned. The unchanging staples are a sweet and a savory dal; a lively rice pulao over which the servers will spoon luxurious ghee, or clarified butter; and the chutneys of tamarind, mint or rubbly red-chile-zapped garlic. There are always pliable soft rounds of roti, the griddled whole wheat flatbread similar to a tortilla; and one kind of poori or another, perhaps a plain fried puff of the flaky bread, or one laced with a green mix of herbs and seasonings.
Even when vegetables are repeated in the course of a week, they’ll be prepared differently. One day’s dry-fry of springy okra pods may leap with mustard seed and green chile; another day’s may be a quieter affair suited to letting the flavor of the okra shine through. Potato curries may switch from a vibrant russet tart-hot preparation to one with a brown gravy with a deeper, saltier savor.
Almost everything I’ve sampled here has been good to very good, and it’s never dull. Occasionally there’s a temperature issue, which is probably inevitable once dishes leave the kitchen on a ladling tour. The food may not have the galvanic complexity of the best dishes at restaurants such as Himalaya, Shri Balaji Bhavan, or Great W’Kana, but it’s fascinating and fun to eat.
I’ve been much taken with the various dumplings, including a mustard-laced curry with a dense, soft Rajasthani chickepea-flour dumpling called gatte; and an unexpected version of dahi vada, the fried lentil-flour “doughnut” moored in a yogurt bath — here, the yogurt was slightly sweetened, which made for another one of those interesting sweet-savory contrasts.
I found myself wishing the restaurant would serve a paneer dish every single day, so downy were the cubes of this pressed farmer’s cheese that arrived in a highly seasoned tomato gravy. Yes, I asked for thirds.
And I surprised myself by gobbling up every last soft, shreddy scrap of an apple halvah dessert, with moist chunks of apple adding a welcome tartness and luxury to the dish. I wept happy tears over the devilishly hot garlic chutney, which Houston’s young Turk chefs would probably call garlic-chili oil. I decided that I love pickled green mango chunks, one of the relishes on offer, although a mustard pickle was so hot it scared me.
Don’t bother looking around for cutlery. The two tablespoons on your platter are all you’ll need, and the deft can go traditional by scooping up food with hunks of flatbread. Using the right hand is considered proper etiquette.
The price for all this is roughly twice what the much more modest self-serve buffet costs at Vishala, a Gujarati restaurant tucked behind an Indian grocery on Highway 6. The food is homier and more rustic at Vishala, and the roti service of flatbreads more vivid. But for the price at Maharaja Bhog (which translates from the Hindi as the lofty-sounding “Maharaja’s Delight” or “Maharaja Food of the Gods”), you get variety, table service (at times overly attentive, even, although the wheels can come off at crowded peak hours) and the more polished feel of a room suitable for celebratory gatherings, dinner with the boss or assorted special occasions.
That’s unusual for a vegetarian restaurant in Houston. And most welcome.
Maharaja Bhog ★
8338 Southwest Freeway at Gessner; 713-771-2464
Hours: 11:30 a.m. -2:30 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays; 6 p.m.-9:30 p.m. Sundays; 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Fridays-Sundays; 6 p.m.-10 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays
Credit cards: all major
Prices: $15.99 for all-you-can-eat thali service
Reservations: first come, first served
Noise level: moderate
★ a good restaurant that we recommend.
★ ★ very good; one of the best restaurants of its kind.
★ ★ ★ excellent; one of the best restaurants in the city.
★ ★ ★ ★ superlative; can hold its own on a national stage.