The great king (Maharaja) of Indian cuisine has finally landed in the streets of Riyadh! The man behind bringing Indian food to a whole new level is named Vineet Bhatia – a three time awardee of the Michelin Star, which is the highest distinction a restaurant/chef can receive worldwide. He began his career in London, elevating the representation of Indian cuisine there with flying colors. It was in AlKhobar’s Movenpick Hotel where he first brought his brand to Saudi Arabia under the name Maharaja by Vineet and has since become a renowned Indian fusion restaurant, attracting the curious and creme de la creme, with patrons even voyaging from nearby cities just to have their share of the Maharaja experience. At long last, Riyadhizens need to travel no more as Maharaja by Vineet opened its doors earlier this year and has been on full swing ever since.
Janelle and I were invited to dine there recently (right after a long trip to the Edge of the World, an entry on that soon!) and it was timely as we were looking forward to a fulfilling meal to wrap up our day. I am a personal fan of Indian food myself with the episodic moments of Buttered Naan dreams and a blast of firework with every bite of Chicken 65 but most of my Indian food experience could be considered “street style” rather than upscale so I was quite intrigued on what to expect at Maharaja. As our night unfolded, it turns out, it’s all in the details.
First off, the place spoke glitz and glamour. As you enter, you will be welcomed by the maitre-d’ and unless you have a reservation, you would have to wait to be seated in their quaint lobby with exquisite ceiling decor. What is also impressive is that the Maharaja brand has finally established itself outside the hotel setting (unlike in Alkhobar) and here in Riyadh they have their own three-storey building with private dining rooms, boardrooms and even an open terrace that can accommodate more than 100 people. We eventually found our seats and the undivided attention of our hosts. To start off, we were treated by their house chef and manager to a brief background of Maharaja and were told that we would tasting a little bit of everything good that they have. They offered to take our orders for drinks and were proud to present that they have a dedicated “Water Bar” – which is a selection of the best still or sparkling water there is. It may sound weird but I actually found it as unique and endearing concept especially since I for one am not a huge fan of sodas during meals and have often opted for water in the past, whether in fancy or fast food places.
To have a taste of their mixed beverages, Janelle ordered the light, watermelon/melon drink and I tried the famous dessert drink of India, the Mango Lassi. All of their drinks are made with fresh ingredients and we were told that they do not use any syrups at all. Mine was made with fresh mangoes and delicious but I suppose it was a bit heavy to start my night with (granted that it is supposed to be a dessert-like drink) while Janelle had the happy and light one which would be more apt to start the dining experience.
Our drinks were the only choices we could make that night as their chef had prepared a special line up of dishes for us to try. So were in for a surprise! Everything that you will see in this post is a sample of most of their dishes. In your visit though, expect ala carte servings of each dish.
Oh the light and airy poppadoms! It is also fun to say it three times. These fried and crispy bread got tastier as you dip them in the sauce of your choice: mint, mustard or spicy ketchup. Even though I am a spicy food fan, I ended up enjoying the mint sauce more. 😉 Hmmm, this night is getting interesting already.
Our soups arrived shortly afterwards with its presentation simply striking. Janelle and I took turns on tasting each soup one at a time and we ended up liking the Lentil Shorba better for its mild taste and flavor. The Lakhni Lamb Shorba was a bit too powerful and rich for our own liking.
I have been seeing a lot of water crest in my restaurant visits lately and here they make another appearance at Maharaja. For the salads, we were given yet another yin and yang of sorts with the Chettinad Potato Salad; which I found starchy yet the zesty vinaigrette carried it in a light and inspired way. I also liked how the texture of the pomegranate seeds contrasted with the mushiness of the potato. Meanwhile, the Chowpatty Chicken Chaat had more personality in terms of it having a more pronounced sauce and flavor. If I were given the choice, I would order the Chettinad Potato Salad again.
The third set of the starters arrived beginning with the vegetarian platter. As you know, many (if not all parts) of India have a strong vegetarian following and this was represented as part of Maharaja’s menu. There was a dilli almond tikki, a beet pate, spiced broccoli and a sun-dried tomato kofta. In the past I have always had an aversion to beetroot but again, I was surprised to like how it was prepared in this platter. It was almost sweet and had a creamy consistency in every bite. The broccoli had a strong spicy paste over it and the crusted almond was a bit bland, but well presented.
For their non-vegetarian platter, we were treated to an array of seafood and poultry. From the left, you see the grilled prawn with coriander powder, hamour fish, a lamb kebab, chicken tikka, hamour fish and again, some more water crest. I was actually excited to taste the shrimp but I ended up liking the hamour much better. The coriander spice was tough for me to overcome and instead I found solace in the the bites of the hamour fish which was delicate and milky in a way I have never had hamour before. It made such an impact on me that I just had to ask what did they do to it to make it taste so good. It turns out they prepare the fish in different marinates for less than two days resulting in a lush portion of goodness.
By this time, Janelle and I were already satisfied with the amount of food we have consumed but we were reminded that it was only half-way of the night just yet! Ooooh lala, we had to hold on tight because the main courses were about to be served.
In my past Naan samplings in other Indian street restaurants, I was already quite content with a buttered naan and was already a dedicated fan of it. But lo and behold, it seems I have yet to taste the best naan there is which is this Cheese Naan that just hit the nail with precision when it comes to my love of cheese. I wanted to take some home, seriously.
If you could only smell the aromas emanating from our dishes that night, it would have been enough to fill us up, but no. It was high time for us to dive into the spice world and relish the abundance of Indian fusion cuisine that was upon us. The Moileen Prawn was very aromatic and you can really distinguish the coconut milk taste. Meanwhile, Janelle really liked the Butter Chicken with her cheese naan.
The host told us that the Raan Mussallam (Baby Lamb Leg) is one of their premier dishes and it was extremely tender and rich with spiced flavors but call me crazy but I actually fell in love with the Dal Maharahi more, which is a lentil based dish which I almost consumed like a soup. The slow-cooked lentils were a beautiful surprise for my tastebuds, popping with buttery creaminess and subtle spices from cardamom, cumin and cloves. It was unlike any other dish I have tasted before (points for originality there!).
The Chicken Biryani was a special appearance with a brief history of it from our host. If I remember it correctly, it was dish borne out of the warrior days of India prior to the invasion wherein they had to feed their army of men in a generous manner. I was curious why the biryani was served with a puff pastry covering it like a pot pie and he explained that it was to contain the flavors and aromas before serving it. He even noted that those who do not serve chicken biryani this way are not serving it with justice. As he first cut open the top, he let me get a whiff of its smell and I was consumed by the bursts of spices. Every bite was succulent and simply delicious. I would order this again in a heartbeat.
We were naturally stuffed by this point and felt like we already had a joyous journey in India (both North and South) and it was time to say a sweet goodbye. Not without some dessert of course! Our last and final dishes for the evening:
Pistachio Ice Cream is a popular Indian delight along with Rabri (which is a smooth and milky cream made with cardamom and saffron spices). This dish in particular was served in a large stainless steel pan which kind of surprised us but nevertheless had us enjoying scooping out the sweets one by one. The sabja seeds are actually sweet basil seeds that are gelatinous when soaked and provides to be a good aid for the digestive system.
The presentation of this last desert was so artistic for me and I loved the balance of negative space and the use of the chocolate soil. As for the taste, the rose scent was very prominent but the taste and texture was quite light in nature. The Rose Kulfi was a sweet note to end all the meals we had. We did enjoy these desserts with a cup of peppermint tea.
If your concept of Indian food is a bang, bang, shootout of all things spicy, then let this experience refine your perspective. Notice that I hardly had any description relating to hot and spiciness? It’s because the use of the term “spice” is often mistaken for just hot-tasting dishes. Spices are in fact, diverse, multi-dimensional and come in different forms like cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, cumin, mustard, saffron, turmeric, basil and many more! If you want to teach your palate a thing or two or if you simply want an elegant Indian cuisine experience, then look no further than Maharaja by Vineet.
Maharaja East by Vineet
Tahlia St. Prince Muhammad 5, Olaya