Maharaja’s on Carmen is the jewel in the lightly renovated strip mall that goes by the name of Carmen Drive Shops.
Interior designers, Lexis Design, have created a welcoming environment that belies the age of the surrounding shops.
Glass screens covered with geometric gold patterns softly reveal the opulent blue and gold dining room.
Patterned pale blue textured vinyl wall-coverings are set off by deeper blue velour banquettes on two sides of the room, with the fabric also employed in the seat cushions of the high-backed, black dining chairs.
Large windows offer a peek at the sleepy suburban streetscape, which has just enough parking to service the restaurants that the isolated strip contains. As I tuck into a sculptural arrangement of Pappadums ($3), nicely charred and oil-free from a fast cook in the tandoor, my dining companion nips to the bottle shop. The seven-month-old restaurant doesn’t have a liquor license, but it’s hardly a drama with a decent liquor store practically next door.
The food menu is surprisingly succinct, though this isn’t Satinder Benepal’s first turn around the block. He began his restaurant journey with Maharaja’s Palace in Kirribilli, back in 1991. The original restaurant paved the way for Maharaja’s Haveli in Quakers Hill in 2008, and Maharaja’s Lakeside, which popped up in the Norwest Business Park seven years ago.
The Carlingford restaurant is the baby of the family, and the first in the hands of Satinder’s wife, Rani Benepal. Rani was a bit flustered when we arrived - she was left to work the floor alone when one of her staff members decided to quit rather than show up for their shift that night. Regardless, we weren't kept waiting too long for our Dirty Samosas ($16) to arrive. The name stems from the artfully messy plate splattered with cooling yoghurt and well-cooked chickpeas sweetened with tamarind. The split-open samosas are much more flavoursome than the average potato-filled pastry, with a nice tingly heat level.
I’ve eaten a number of versions of Chicken 65 ($20) and the Maharaja’s on Carmen rendition is the best I've tried. Here the bright red masala, flavoured with tomato and fresh curry leaves, sits over crunchy nodules of chicken thigh fillet under a scattering of spring onions to give the dish a bit of green. The spice level is great, and the batter keeps its crispness well.
The Blue Cheese Naan ($8) is a unique update that feels a bit like late night kitchen fun with an Indian chef. The fluffy naan is presented in quarters with a squiggle of chilli mayo and a pot of sweet mango chutney to help cut against rich filling of pungent cheese. In this format, it's obviously more of an entrée than it is a bread you dip in curry.
Not wanting to double up on bread, we had our Panjim Prawns ($31) with Plain Boiled Rice ($5). Carlingford locals prefer plain rice to pilau, Rani explained, though the lovely well-separated bowl of long grain rice still felt fancy flecked with a good amount of saffron.
The yoghurt and kalonji (nigella sativa or black seed) topped prawn curry has a creamy coconut base. While the sauce was quite compelling, it had a salty edge that worked up a powerful thirst.
Our clay bowl of Maharaja’s Baby Goat Curry ($31) was made on boneless baby goat, which didn’t really offer up enough flavour to combat the bright, acidic, tomato-based curry. The next time I happen to find myself in Carlingford, I think I'd swap it out for chef’s South Indian crab curry, instead.
Thanks to AGFG for arranging this visit.
Maharaja's on Carmen
12 Carmen Drive, Carlingford
Ph: (02) 9873 1900