Out of this World

The superb flavors at Raga will transform your view of traditional Indian cuisine.



The baingan ka bharta from northern India is a standout—roasted eggplant with a thick, spicy sauce of tomato, onion and lemon.

NATHAN DOBBINS

You might be perfectly content ordering tandoori chicken and curried lamb at an Indian restaurant, but there is literally an entire world of flavors and dishes you may have never tried.

India is an enormous subcontinent with dozens of regions and a very long history of colonization and conquest by various Chinese, Portuguese, Indonesian, French, Persian, Hindu, Muslim and Arab visitors, each one influencing the local foods. Yet just a tiny slice of this vast culture ever makes it to our plates

Executive chef Dominic Sarkar creates Indian dishes with a French flair.

Opened last October in the second-floor space formerly occupied by Antonio’s, Raga is an atypical Indian restaurant. Reached by elevator (or stairs if you’re not a lazy dining critic), Raga opens into a multi-roomed white space with curved barrel ceilings, white and gold linens and wall-length banquettes in green velvet. Not a sari cloth or Taj Mahal image in sight, just a restaurant that puts a contemporary spin on well-executed fare.   

The current American view of Indian food was formed when curry houses first sprang up in the 1960s, and a now-familiar menu has been cloned across the country ever since; stews, naan bread and lots of sauces. There’s a joke that the dozen or so Indian restaurants along Manhattan’s 6th Street are all supplied by one underground kitchen.

But a new generation of chefs, trained in an increasing number of culinary academies and 5-star hotels in India, are creating a sophisticated view of Indian cuisine that is taking hold in London, New York and Los Angeles. And, possibly, in Orlando.

As is common these days, Raga’s menu proudly lists local purveyors of its ingredients—vegetables from Tomazin Farms, meats from Pasture Prime. There’s also a “global fusion” page with dishes from Morocco, Spain and Greece, but I was so taken by the Indian selections that I never got to those items. 

Executive chef Dominic Sarkar comes from a career in high-end hotels and restaurants in New Delhi, Dubai, Philadelphia and San Mateo, Calif. “My style is elegant and different,” he says, and the proof is on the plate. Sarkar creates authentic regional Indian dishes with a classical French flair, serving scallops, sliced into thin, one-bite wafers, coated in rice flour and pan seared, as his version of bhuna rattan ($9), a dish from Kolkata that disappears far too quickly.

The Goan crab cake ($9) is less the chunky patty of seafood we expect and more a croquette, the lump crabmeat blended with masala (which means a spice mix, of which there are hundreds) to form a smooth interior, heady with cumin and mustard seed, the outside crunchy in contrast. I ordered the jahangiri jhinga shorba soup ($9) as much for the bouncy name as the taste—tomatoes cooked with fragrant cardamom and a hint of clove and served with chili-dusted tandoori shrimp in a combination found from Algeria to Kashmir.

There are menu items familiar enough to the casual diner that you won’t be intimidated. Plain and garlic naan bread (plus a terrifically hearty one stuffed with fresh herbs and goat cheese); tikka masala ($17), a dish invented in Newcastle and Glasgow in the UK (Britain’s most popular restaurant item); and butter chicken ($16) are available. But what superb butter chicken it is, shreds of tandoor-roasted meat slowly simmered until they melt as easily as the namesake ingredient, the super-rich sauce of butter, tomato and more butter enhanced with yoghurt, ginger, coriander and the nutty, sweet taste of fenugreek.

Two particular dishes stand out. Baingan ka bharta from northern India ($14), is eggplant roasted in the clay tandoor oven and mixed with a thick and spicy tomato, onion and lemon sauce (I took some home and ate it the next day as a cold chutney—delightful and even spicier). And chef Sarkar is justly proud of his biryani rice dishes ($14-$22), the murgh version layering saffron chicken (the “murgh”), firm Basmati rice, crunchy fried onions and a complex blend of spices that can be traced to the descendants of Genghis Khan who conquered the Indian city of Lucknow. The serving is enormous and you’ll be quite amazed at how much of it you’ll eat.

“Indian delivered in the French style,” chef Sarkar calls Raga, and like a blend of spices, it is a masala worth trying.  

Raga
7559 W. Sand Lake Road, Orlando
407-985-2900
ragarestaurant.com
Entrees: $10-$35

Melting Pot
Raga’s menu travels as far as its staff, who hail from India, Morocco, South America, Mexico and Turkmenistan. Try the whole Afghani chicken ($18), baby eggplant from Kashmir ($14) or coconut shrimp from Fiji ($12) for worldly treats.


Sweet Somethings

There’s no need to decide between chocolate and wine for Valentine’s Day when you can give both. From the vineyards of Chile’s Rapel Valley comes Canto de Apalta ($19.99; en.lapostolle.com), a luscious red blend from Lapostolle, the same family that created Grand Marnier in France. Hand-harvested Carmenère, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah grapes give the wine a deep color, spiced fruit taste and aroma of ripe berries and chocolate, a perfect complement for Taza Chocolate Mexicano Discs ($4.50 each; tazachocolate.com). Whole organic Dominican cacao beans are hand ground on authentic Oaxacan stone mills in Somerville, Mass, to capture the vibrant flavors, then mixed with cane sugar and Guajillo chili powder made from the berry-like Mirasol pepper. The wine’s beautiful bouquet and the warm kick of spicy chocolate will wake up your partner’s taste buds, and perhaps a little more. Taza is available locally at Whole Foods Market; the wine can be ordered there as well.    —J.H.

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