Our friend Jim Pinfold said South Portland’s Taj has “the best Indian food in Maine.” He spends a lot of time in India, so he should know.
And Jim was soooo right! For an appetizer, we spent two hours at the Portland Museum of Art, enthralled by the Winslow Homer exhibit.
Winslow Homer said, “The life I have chosen gives me my full hours of enjoyment. The sun will not rise, or set, without my notice, and thanks.”
Lin and I got a two full hours of enjoyment at “Weatherbeaten” — an amazing collection of Homer’s work at the Portland Museum of Art, billed as “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to view many of his most critically acclaimed masterpieces together.”
That it is. And you must not miss it. This collection can be viewed through Dec. 30. Many of these works will not be seen in Maine again for a long time, and certainly will not be seen together. This is a rare opportunity.
I’ve always been drawn to Homer because he lived his life outdoors, and painted it. From crashing waves to foxes and geese, he recorded it all in etchings, oils and watercolors. Large and small, these works of art are stunning.
I was especially intrigued by the informative presentation available by cell phone as you stroll around the exhibit. After dialing in, I simply punched in the appropriate digit at each display for a fascinating history of the pieces of art I was viewing. Tours with a museum guide are also available.
There’s a lot of information on the walls, including a chronological timeline of Homer’s life and work in and out of Maine. We absorbed it all and learned a lot.
Don’t miss the fourth floor, where four photographers were assigned 19th century techniques to use in photographing Homer’s studio and surroundings. Fascinating.
The wide range of works on the second and third floors are tied nicely into his life and works, making the entire museum visit an immersion in all things Homer.
If you want more, you can really immerse yourself with a unique tour of Homer’s Prouts Neck studio, recently restored and opened to the public.
I learned that Homer, whose studio was not insulated, would make plans to head south in the winter when the water froze in his studio bucket. My kind of guy!
When friends Alex Carter and Jim Pinfold found out that we were on the lookout for great restaurants and we love Indian food, they suggested their favorite place, Taj, in South Portland. Jim told us that it was an unassuming restaurant serving very authentic Indian cuisine.
Jim really wanted us to experience Southern Indian cuisine. So we were grateful that he took charge and ordered the meal that would give us a good idea of typical flavors.
But sometimes life sends you the unexpected, and this particular evening the Taj had a rather large assignment — catering an Indian holiday meal for 300 people! (Originally scheduled for 100, it turned into about 500 people!) So one son raced back and forth with more food to the event, while the other son tried to serve a packed restaurant.
We ended up having a very delicious meal, albeit without Southern Indian cuisine. All of the Dosas, Bhel Puri and Uthappam had been made in large quantities and sent to the huge event. So we sampled a variety of vegetarian dishes from the northern region of India, and each and every one of them was full of the rich, delicate flavors that make me love Indian food so much.
Paneer, a homemade cheese, was something new for me. Our Paneer Tikka Masala was cooked in a tomato sauce with a bit of cream. My favorite entrée was Navaratan Khorma — nine fresh vegetables in a spice-laced cream sauce. To go with all this we shared basmati rice as well as spiced rice called Veg Biryani.
We did try one South Indian dish, Idli Vada. It was a combination of fried lentil donuts, (vada), and steamed rice and lentil patties, (idli). These were unlike anything I’ve ever tried and amazing when dipped in the variety of sauces served with them.
In India the diet is more vegetable-based, and the Taj has perfected the art of getting incredible flavors from simple ingredients through their finesse with spices.
I wanted Lin to write the first piece about Taj, because she’s got the lingo. Although service was slow, due to the huge event Taj was catering, I was impressed that this restaurant, of all the Indian restaurants in the region, was chosen for that celebration of an Indian holiday.
Jim and Alex are fascinating people, so the delay in getting our food really didn’t matter. The whole evening was a lot of fun.
The entire Guntake family works here, and the mom, Sailatha, is the chef. They are incredibly hard-working and very personable. Paul, our server, and his brother Sai — who was trying to take care of the catering challenge — continuously stopped by our table to keep us informed and help us enjoy a wonderful meal.
And the food was fabulous. It frustrates me that many Mainers will not try ethnic food. “Too spicy,” I often hear. That’s absolutely wrong! The food is spiced to your preference.
Lin and I agreed: The Navaratan Khorma was our favorite entrée. I swooned over the dipping sauces that come with some of the dishes. So very tasty. And their rice dishes are superb, too. This is not Minute Rice!
I also enjoy the community aspect of an Indian dinner, with entrées and bowls of rice shared by all, so you get to try them all. Our table was covered in food!
But there was one exception to that “share the food” principle: dessert. Lin said, “I thought you could write about the desserts, since you ate most of them.”
Oops! One dessert is called Gulab Jamoon, soft-fried cheese balls soaked in honey syrup. I thought they were donuts. I could eat these every day for breakfast.
The second dessert is called Kheer, boiled vermicelli cooked in milk with a pinch of cardamom, cashews and raisins. This took a quick trip around the table, and then I gobbled it up.
The third dessert was simply called Fruit Custard. On this night the fruit was mango, one of my favorites. Apparently Lin, Alex and Jim had overeaten on the entrees, because I had this one mostly to myself, too. Thank God I saved room for desserts!
IF YOU GO . . .
Taj, 200 Gorham Road, South Portland, www.tajofmaine.com, 828-6677. Taj is located in a roadside mall, near the South Portland Mall, and in the same area as Olive Garden.
Open 7 days a week. 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday to Thursday and 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m Friday and Saturday.
Portland Museum of Art: 7 Congress St., www.portlandmuseum.org, 775-6148. Admission fee is $12 for adults, $6 for seniors (+65) and students, $6 for ages 13-17, free for children. All visitors can enter for free 5-9 p.m., Friday evenings; thanks to L.L. Bean.
Tours of Homer’s studio in Prouts Neck are limited to 10 people at a time, must be reserved and cost $55 ($30 for museum members). Ticket price includes the van ride from the museum to the studio. Tours are available through Dec. 2, and again in 2013 from April 2 to June 14.
Visit George’s website: www.georgesmithmaine.com for travel tips, book reviews, outdoor news and more.