At Raga, I introduce a friend who is a picky eater to Indian food. Her tentative nibble on an ingeniously spiced tandoori chicken wing is followed by a more assertive bite and then, there's no holding her back. Getting into the aloo paratha, a pillowy potato-stuffed whole-wheat bread, she's smitten and asks whether all Indian restaurants are like this. Not exactly. For one thing, Raga's menu combines traditional North and South Indian dishes with a few fusion-type forays. And while prices are affordable (some entrees come with soup or salad and dessert), it's a spiffier looking spot than the average humble curry house.
FOOD TO SING ABOUT
A sip of mulligatawny (lentil) soup reveals a thoughtfully seasoned standout. Bombay bhel puri, a tamarind-laced street snack of crisped rice, tomatoes, potatoes, onions and mint sauce, delivers a burst of flavors and textures. I'm impressed with a masala snow crab cake, loose textured and well spiced. Dry "chilli" chicken (fried boneless thighs) ignites my palate, while I find comfort in an appetizer called C.V.C.T. (crisp vegetable corn triangles), made with potato and cottage cheese. My pal compares it to a good knish. There's yet more gratification in the South Indian vegetable uttapam, a rice and lentil flour embedded with mixed vegetables.
Everything in the tandoori mixed grill - tandoori chicken, chicken tikka, kebab-e-khas (lamb), prawn kebab, fish tikka and malai kebab (more chicken) - is moist and deftly seasoned. I like the slow burn I get from the sizzling chili-spiked chicken Lukhnawi. On a cold night, lamb "do piazza" makes for a hearty, warming choice.
So, too, the vegetarian bangan bhurta, roasted eggplant with onions, tomatoes, peas and cilantro. Saag paneer, spinach with house-made cheese, is smooth and garlicky, ideal for slathering on any of the superb tandoori breads such as onion kulcha and cheese naan.
FOOD TO WHINE ABOUT
A Westernized entree of lamb shank marinated with Indian spices has good flavor but lacks tenderness. It's plated with dull masala-laced mashed potatoes and an uninspired vegetable mélange. And Goan chicken vindaloo, described as fiery, needs to be sent back for a jolt.
Rice pudding and gulab jaman (fried cheese balls in syrup) are no better than ordinary.
The Sanskrit word "raga" relates to color, mood and music. Here, the term also can be applied to the food, seasoned with nuance and orchestrated with skill.