I recently conducted a bit of a straw poll amongst my Bournemouth friends as to what, in their opinion, was the best curry house in Bournemouth. Interestingly, there were three clear front runners, all of which are slightly out of town in the suburb of Westbourne. Whether this is just coincidence, or perhaps because town centre Indian restaurants tend to suffer from the stag party factor, it does seem that Westbourne is the curry capital of Bournemouth.
My own personal favourite is the Taj Mahal, which is quite a large, very traditional Indian restaurant with over 45 years of heritage. On Friday night, we fancied a curry, so headed to Westbourne for an evening there. I am a firm believer in the more traditional style of Indian dining, having little appetite for the more ‘contemporary’ Indian dining, which can – if it is your preference – be found not far away at Indi’s (also one of the ‘Westbourne Three’). Interestingly, the Taj Mahal’s website describes it as contemporary, but I would disagree. The restaurant sits behind a deceptively small and unassuming shop front, but inside opens up into a spacious dining room, with a range of booths, large and small tables, and a riot of colourful, traditional Indian decor including deep red walls, colourful artworks and draped ceilings. There is a bar area as you enter, with a small seating area for those waiting for takeaways, and you are always made extremely welcome on arrival by the staff – many of whom I believe have worked there for many years. On our visit on Friday, the restaurant was packed – as is always the case at the weekend, and means there is always a good atmosphere.
After a drink at the bar (a Cobra for Mr W and a glass of house wine for me), we decided to start our meal with some poppadoms and chutneys. We asked for just one poppadom each, but it does seem that Indian restaurants struggle to provide anything less than four at a time, so when the tray arrived with four poppadoms on it, we were neither surprised nor perturbed! The pickle tray comprised onion salad, mango chutney (fairly chunky), lime pickle and chilli pickle. No raita on this occasion, but they are always happy to provide a jug on the side should you be unable to enjoy the poppadom experience without it! The poppadoms themselves were crisp, light, very fresh and not at all greasy – so our meal got off to the right start!
The menu at the Taj Mahal is always quite entertaining, with some of the English descriptions of the dish having lost something in the translation – although gained something in terms of comedic value. As an example, I’m always tempted by one main course that describes itself as “Most beautiful dish ever made.” We rarely go for a starter, due to Indian food’s infallible ability to ensure that you leave the restaurant on the verge of explosion, but having looked at some of the ‘unusual’ starters on offer, several of which were still of fairly indeterminate nature after a careful reading of the translation, we decided to be adventurous and share a starter that we’d never had before. We opted for a Nargis Kebab. When it arrived, it seemed to be an Indian take on the Scotch egg – a hard boiled egg enveloped in minced, spiced lamb (similar to the keema used in Naan bread and sheekh kebabs) – and all topped off with an omelette! It was served with salad and a jug of raita, and although I’m sure it was cooked correctly, we were unanimous in our verdict that the flavour and texture combination was pretty awful – but at least we’ve tried it.
Happily, we knew we’d be on to a winner with our main courses. Mr W chose a Chicken Tikka Biriani – a rice dish with plentiful pieces of chicken mixed in and a dish of vegetable curry sauce on the side. He asked for the curry Madras hot, and was very satisfied with what arrived. I ordered a Chicken Tikka Badami. The Taj Mahal has one of the most extensive menus I’ve seen, and along with the usual roll call of curry dishes (Korma, Madras, Roughan Josh, Dhansak, Ceylon…I could go on) there are some much more unusual options on offer which I’ve rarely, if ever, seen on another menu, and the Badami is one of them. The dish is cooked with chestnuts and topped with cashew nuts, so as a lover of cashews, it’s always a popular choice with me! I’m not a huge rice fan, so tend to go with a vegetable side dish instead – in this case a Sag Bhaji.
My Badami was excellent as always – not at all oily or greasy, but rich and tasty without being overpoweringly spicy. Perhaps unusually for a curry lover I dislike anything with an overly hot and spicy taste, but all too often when you choose a mild dish, you find that it is bland or excessively creamy. This, however, was just right and had a lovely mild but flavourful taste, with a sauce that managed to be rich and thick without having too much of a creamy taste. Similarly, the Sag Bhaji was not at all oily (sometimes this dish has a tendency to be swimming in butter or oil) and provided a nice balance with the sauce of the Badami. Unfortunately, and unusually, there were small pieces of chopped celery mixed in with the spinach and onion, which is not something I’ve ever come across before in an Indian dish. Celery used in cooking always reminds me of school dinners where it seemed to be used to ‘bulk out’ just about everything, so I really wasn’t keen on this, nor did it seem particularly authentic, but am hoping it was a one off, because I don’t recall ever having this at the Taj Mahal before.
The dessert menu is one of those generic ice cream menus that just about every Indian in the country seems to have, so we didn’t feel we were missing out by not having anything else to eat after our main course. We had a couple of glasses of house wine with the meal; the wine list is not particularly extensive, with only one red and two whites (medium and dry) available by the glass, but what we had (red and dry white) was pleasant enough. For those who fancy a throwback to the 1970s, there is Mateus Rose available by the bottle – perhaps this was why our taxi conversation on the way home focused on Goblin Teasmades, through some sort of subconscious 1970s association!?
The service in the Taj Mahal is always excellent – very attentive and welcoming, no matter how busy they are. Unfortunately, on this occasion, somewhat unusually given the out of town location, there was what appeared to be a stag party in the restaurant, which did intrude upon our evening a little (from a noise perspective), but they had been seated as far as possible away from other diners so at least the staff had made an effort to mitigate the inevitable raucousness. Despite this, the staff had to deal with behaviour (and the unpleasant and messy effects of too much alcohol) that they really shouldn’t have to cope with – but did so admirably, and with the minimum of disruption to other diners.
In my book, the Taj Mahal is definitely up there with the best of the Indian restaurants in the Bournemouth area and I’d recommend it for a group outing or if you just fancy a curry on a Friday night (or any night of the week, for that matter!). The food is always good, as is the service, and the buzzy ambience and traditional decor adds to the experience.
Food: **** Service: **** Ambience: ****
Taj Mahal, 42 Poole Road, Bournemouth BH4 9DW