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Each spring, as a member of the jury that samples and recommends the food vendors for the Utah Arts Festival, I am always impressed with the diversity of the entrants. While only about 20 are eventually selected for the festival, the range of choices is both formidable and wide. I have sampled all kinds of food, from Afghanto Caribbean to pork ribs smoked with green oak from Provo.

Of interest each year are the comments of the jurors, volunteers who come from diverse backgrounds yet share a passion for food. Several years back we sampled several dishes from India, a cuisine that had not gained any popularity in Utah. Jurors were worried about the aspiring entrant - I think her catering group was named "Bombay Bess" - and her lack of experience in meeting the crush that festival foodies place on the vendors. The booth was not accepted, but each member of the jury lamented the fact that there was not a restaurant that served food from the Indo-Pakistan sub-continent.Aficionados as well as novices who long for a taste of this exciting and rich cuisine need only now travel to Bountiful to the Royal Taj restaurant, open since late March. Formerly Gumpy's and Penguins, the interior shows little signs of its prior Western tenants. The linen on the tables, a deep maroon, creates a sedate, almost tranquil feeling. Each window has a silhouette of the ornate Taj Mahal, and colorful paintings of costumed Indian couples line the walls. Several ceiling fans whir overhead, and traditional though electrically enhanced Indian music plays in the background. (I would have preferred a little more raga and a little less rock, however.)

The extensive menu offers a broad spectrum of appetizers, soups, roti (or Indian breads), lamb, chicken and vegetable curries, as well as several rice dishes and tandoori specialties. Tandoori dishes consist of either lamb, chicken or prawns marinated in spices and sometimes yogurt, and roasted on skewers in a clay oven, or tandoor. We found these dishes especially appetizing and worth the visit alone.

Most of the dishes are spicy, and our waiter asked about the degree to which we wanted our food prepared - either hot or mild. While it is expected that Indian cuisine should be redolent with exotic spices such as the complex curry blend that underscores the bill of fare, none of the dishes we sampled was overpowering. In several cases, such as the muilligatawny soup ($2), a blend of lentils, rice and pieces of chicken, as well as the chicken biriyani ($7.50) or saffron rice, the taste bordered on the bland.

Other dishes were more distinctive, especially the chicken tikka ($7.50), prepared in the tandoor, and the tandoori chicken, which came with several of the combination dinners we ordered. The meat was succulent and saturated with a unique blend of seasonings that include, among others, ginger, coriander, cummin, garlic and chili powder.

We also sampled two of the combination dinners, the Royal Taj's Special Thali or tray ($12) as well as an $8.95 special. It was difficult to determine the difference in price since the size and items of the two dinners seemed to be about the same. The Royal Taj is served in upright bowls; the other on a recessed tray. Both include nan, which is flat hot bread covered with ghee, melted sweet clarified butter. While Westerners might use forks, the bread makes an appetizing scoop for the various dishes.

In addition to chicken, the Royal Taj dinner features a selection of rogan josh, lamb cubes cooked with tomatoes and spices; sag lamb, cooked with a spicy creamed spinach; mattar paneer, green peas cooked with farmers cheese; pillav, saffron basamti rice; and raita, minced cucumbers in yogurt sauce; nan; and hot tea. It is a flavorful and interesting sampler.

Other specialties include vegetable and chicken pakora, or fritters, onion kulcha or keema nan, spicy minced lamb leavened bread, a variety of chicken curries and daal makhni, spicy creamed lentils. Separate dishes cost between $4.50 and $10. The breads each cost around $1 but are definitely worth the price.

Thanks to the risk taken by the owners of the Royal Taj, Utahns along the Wasatch Front have an opportunity to indulge in one of the world's truly engaging and exotic cuisines. We hope local appetites and interests will sustain this one-of-a-kind restaurant.

Rating: ****

Royal Taj Restaurant, 460 S. Second West, Bountiful. 292-3408. Open for lunch from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and for dinner, 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Closed Sunday. Major credit cards accepted. No checks. Reservations recommended for the weekends.

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