Song of India
Hankering for butter chicken, I let my fingers find an Indian place in the pages of the slim maroon tome that organizes many a Gothamite's dining life. Raga sounded like just the thing. Could it be that my favorite Indian spot had relocated? I knew it was no longer in the 48th Street digs where I learned to eat tikka and tandoori long before I visited the subcontinent. That place had turned into another restaurant faster than you could say rasmalai. This one was on East 6th Street, a block beyond Curry Row. Still, I was surprised when the taxi stopped across the street from a large apartment complex. Could this be where my favorite Indian had landed?
When I crossed the threshold I realized that this Raga, with umber walls the color of a Jodhpur sunset, played a different tune altogether. Welcoming, with just enough funk to evoke the pregentrified East Village, it was pleasantly informal, with the neighborhood feel of a spot where folks meet after work and buddies drop in to see what's up. Indeed, the window to the kitchen served not only as a pass-through but also as a conversation center for friends who dropped by to chat briefly with the chef.
The waiter offered menus, a greeting that seemed genuine, and a list of specials that included a cream of zucchini soup ($5)a rich puree of vegetable served with a mess of golden sweated onions. While waiting for my friend to join me, I selected a 1997 Riddoch Shiraz from a well-edited and reasonably priced wine list. I sipped and decided on grilled scallops, rounds of chewily sweet mollusk that went perfectly with a beet-and-ginger slaw that could have used a bit more zip ($9). On a subsequent visit I'd sample grilled sake prawns served on an unctuous mash of eggplant, zucchini, and crème fraîche scented with mustard seed and curry and called bharta ($9), and a tour de force salad of warm beets pinwheeled around a banana leaf packet filled with melted, spiced, walnut-flecked goat cheese ($8). Thoughtfully combining complex spice mixes and traditional culinary techniques with ingredients from closer to home, the East-meets-West starters exemplified the "Indian-inspired cuisine" Raga's business card promises.
When the mains arrived, the concept soared. A spiced chicken ($15) was bursting with a medley of tastes: tamarind's acidity, the sneaky smoke of cardamom, and was that a hint of fenugreek? Moist and tender, it was intensely flavorful and very, very good. Surprisingly, the advertised watercress salad was bathing in pan juices under the chicken. Not bad, but not really a salad, though I was too busy chewing to quibble. The salad on the nicely seasoned tandoori-spiced salmon fillet ($17) was more traditional, but blown out of the box by the intense citrus tang of the lentil-dotted lemon rice we substituted as an accompaniment.
The fresh clean taste of the lemon rice worked so well that on a second visit we ordered it as a side and enjoyed it with the lamb chops, three double ribs flavored with a slurry of mint and cilantro and served with the astringency of a mint-and-tamarind chutney ($22), and with the tender slices of seared duck breast that were served with a spicy fruit compote that seemed more like cinnamon-scented applesauce ($21). Usually too stuffed to attempt dessert, we made an exception one evening for a satisfying warm soufflé ($7) that combined raspberries and dense, runny chocolate. East meets West is all well and good. But I still prefer raspberries to rasmalai.
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