Taj Indian Fusion
1929 Wantagh Ave., Wantagh
AMBIENCE: Warm, light, inviting
ESSENTIALS: Open Sunday to Thursday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., buffet Monday to Thursday 11 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.; major credit cards accepted; wheelchair accessible
A new star of India has been mined on Long Island.
In the very modest setting of the Wantagh Commons strip mall, Taj Indian Fusion reflects light and sparks appetites with flavor-packed fare and gracious style.
The address has housed hibachi and sushi spots, a pizzeria nearby, and, at the moment, also sports available space. But, complete with a red carpet at its entrance, Taj Indian Fusion takes you on a first-class passage to India.
It’s a comfortable place, with a banquette room divider, tables not tightly packed in, and a big bar, next to which a mock waterfall streams onto what looks like a slate wall.
But the cooking requires neither special effects nor any other distractions. Chef Nirmal Gomes, whose résumé includes Lotus in Hicksville, and Utsav and Tamarind in Manhattan, ignites his own fireworks.
He deftly prepares traditional Indian dishes, playfully takes an Italian turn, and brings in a hint of China.
Consider “drums of heaven,” traced to Hong Kong. They make meaty chicken wings mandatory, fried and finished with a snappy Sichuan sauce. Or discover pumpkin chops, rounds seasoned with fennel and accompanied by crisp strands of okra and a kidney bean salad.
Gobi Manchurian translates into addictive cauliflower fritters, deep-fried and then stir-fried with garlic, shallots and peppers in a sweet-spicy sauce. Eat enough of them and you’ll be ready for a second bottle of either easygoing Taj Mahal Lager or crisp Flying Horse Royal Lager.
Paneer galouti are creamy rounds of pan-fried cottage cheese, boosted by dried fruits and cilantro, positioned on square-inch toasts, and sure to melt the moment you taste them.
The house’s pakoras, or vegetable fritters, however, are on the dry side and may make you reach for the tamarind, onion or mint sauces that arrived earlier with crackling sheets of papadum. Vegetable samosas also are arid and benefit from the dips. And the grilled malai artichoke, though stylish, doesn’t quite work, weighed down by cream, vinegar and yogurt. Chicken wontons suggest a familiar, routine turn toward China.
But Gomes jump-starts your appetite again with a superior version of rogan josh, or tender pieces of lamb in a balanced gravy that hints of cardamom, cinnamon and clove.
His chicken vindaloo delivers an electric undercurrent of spice. Enjoy lamb the same way. When you ask for it to be spicy, your white-gloved waiter may genially ask how hot on a one-to-10 scale. Unless you like popping Carolina Reapers, six or seven will do.
What’s dubbed “Tandoori Genghis Queen” unfolds as a satisfying, whole red snapper, marinated in a spice blend and yogurt, grilled in the clay oven. Continue your seafood tasting with Bengali-style mustard fish, or mahi mahi simmered just enough in mustard, yogurt, and fenugreek gravy. Ginger-chili lobster packs heat and stays tender.
Mattar pulao, with basmati rice, peas and fried onions, is a mild side dish that goes with almost anything. But choose badin jaan, or roasted, mashed and deftly spiced eggplant with green peas. Dal panchratan, a union of five different lentils, and amritsari chole, chickpeas with tomatoes, compete with them.
Select at least two Indian breads to complement dinner, and maybe to spoon up sauces and vegetables. Some favorites: onion kulcha, potato kulcha, garlic naan, and roti rumali.
Desserts take in gulab jamun, the deep-fried dumplings with saffron-and-rose scented syrup; kulfi, or ice cream with slivered almonds; and . . . tiramisu. Yes, the espresso-mascarpone treat from the Veneto. If that doesn’t suffice, there’s crème brûlée, too.
Taj Indian Fusion has fun crossing borders, as will you.