The difference between a good restaurant and an exciting restaurant is in the detail. Good restaurants have the food, albeit predictable; the ambiance; the service just so, with some distinguishing touches. An exciting restaurant is as well thought out as a winning military campaign, offering the pleasing aesthetics of intricately woven lace with food that will make you sing. It's that Broadway show with the memorable tune you hum on the way home. Restaurants with this seamless melding of these essential elements are elusive.
This is what hit me as I opened the wide doors of the 70-seat The Blue Taj in Ballantyne. Anyone who had previously visited this space in its first life as a pizza joint will be stunned by the visual transformation. The Blue Taj is the after of the best plastic surgeon's work. Diners are literally swept into a whimsical world with dining areas defined by fluttering curtains and fanciful wall murals. One section has a ceiling of gleaming pressed tin and larger-than-life damask walls while the "bubble" bar at the rear features a secluded "clandestine" table. The 40-seat cabana, not a patio, can be enclosed and has a LED light show on its ceiling. To the left of the entry is a glass-enclosed, temperature-controlled wine room.
When you sit down, you noticed the small details: the blue bread plates, the heavyweight silverware, the crystal wine glasses. The servers are uniformed in black, most with slicked back hair and faintly Asian. All have impeccable service skills and English.
Pinch me, please.
The menu at The Blue Taj is a finely honed roundup of quietly Asian-inspired dishes with a smattering of international dishes or condiments: Irish colcannon on the sides list, chimichurri on a chicken breast. The majority of the dishes, though, are intended to have the semblance of Asian elements without the authenticity or sloppy seconds that too many shops have given us. This is ethnic food 3.0 -- food for outside-the-box thinkers, the so-called "creative class." If you are looking for chicken tikka masala, look elsewhere. If you want General Tso or pollo asada, this is not your place either. This is not missionary position ethnic food.
Not surprisingly, The Blue Taj, which opened last February, is brought to us by the same creative team that opened Copper Modern Indian Cuisine in 2005. For restaurateur Pannu Singh, a native of the Punjab, this is the third restaurant in his stable, which also includes his original spot, Nawab in Roanoke, Va. Singh again employed the creative talents of chef and restaurant consultant Mel Oza to create a menu worthy of his creative interior. Oza is a graduate of what he terms "the CIA of India," which focused on the skill of creating Indian, classical French and Chinese cuisines, with some Indo-Chinese. Oza is also a wine geek and is currently in the process of obtaining a Master Sommelier Diploma. The Chef de Cuisine is Kuldeep Gill, who is also a partner.
The Blue Taj dishes are solidly prepared and innovatively pleasing, a culinary cultural excursion. The moderation of spices allows for a greater range of selection when choosing wine. My list of favorites begins with the vegetable coquettes, aka samosas, which taste familiar, yet exotic. Equally successful items include the kaffir lime shrimp charred on the tandoor, the brilliant scallop entrée with a heady hit of Asian-flavored green beans, and the chipotle garlic naan. The excellent quartet of rosemary and garlic infused sits astride a lush pool of lentils and onions.
The lunch menu is divided into "Ladies Who Lunch" and "Spice Voyage" with prices ranging from $8 for a chimichurri chicken sandwich to $13 for Karala-styled seafood stew. A separate vegetarian menu appears at dinner primarily containing Indian dishes. Dinner entrées range from $15 for tofu curry to $25 for a filet mignon.
When Copper was added to the roster of Charlotte restaurants, I breathed a sigh of relief: finally, an upscale Indian restaurant serving innovative Indian dishes with a lengthy wine list. With the plethora of Indian spots offering buffet lunch lines, I had become concerned what these buffet lines would show restaurateurs and potential restaurateurs. Would Charlotte diners eventually only support and expect buffet-styled Indian cuisine? But five years later Copper is still here.
And now Singh hopes to stake out another claim by opening The Blue Taj, a concept firing on all creative cylinders, in a distant suburban part of Charlotte. A "Cock-Eyed Optimist," as the song goes from the musical South Pacific? Yes, but the audience left the theater singing that one.
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