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Fit for a Prince 

Raja Cuisine of India

Wednesday, Aug 7 2002
It's difficult -- OK, impossible -- to say anything about Raja Cuisine of India without mentioning that the place is 68 steps away from Indian Oven. The latter is a titan among San Francisco Indian restaurants: If there's no line out front, it probably isn't open. Whether you think the Oven's popularity is deserved -- I don't -- you have to admit that it took some chutzpah, or foolhardiness, or both, to open another Indian restaurant a mere half-block away from it. Raja has survived for two years now, and it's not hard to figure out why. A few rough edges are easily overshadowed by the best reason for a restaurant to thrive: good food. Choices run from fine takes on the standard north Indian fare to splendid, harder-to-find dishes from central India and the south.

For a restaurant whose name evokes royalty, Raja is not, however, the most lavish place to dine. Pass through a humble archway and you'll find yourself in a stark, almost painfully simple setting. White walls seem naked despite a few prints; maroon tablecloths match the carpet; and odd-looking chandeliers (picture swirls of glass beads) hang from a ceiling so high the room feels empty even when it's full. Exactly three tables were occupied when my friend Amanda and I strolled in on a Wednesday. This vacancy worried me: Nothing bodes worse than an underpopulated restaurant. Over the course of the next hour, though, Raja filled slowly but surely. We saw couples on dates and an array of local bohemians -- a woman in a knit beanie, a shaggy dude in jeans and sneakers, and one particularly scruffy bloke who seemed to sport a classic just-did-a-bong-hit-and-craving-some-mighty-fine-curry look.

Bong hits or not, the man was in the right place. Our meal began with shattering, wafer-thin pappadam bread and a trio of chutneys -- a zippy mint, a sweet-and-sour tamarind, and a chunky tomato with a wallop of heat. The 15-bottle wine list ($13.99-25.99, all choices available by the glass) contains many safe, familiar names -- Mondavi, Kendall-Jackson, Clos du Bois. We opted for a big bottle of light, crisp Taj Mahal lager, a perfect foil for the intensely flavored dishes that came later. Side orders were the only letdown. Raita with cucumber and shredded carrot lacked the minty kick of most versions, and the mango chutney was far too sweet. I have yet to acquire a taste for achar (Indian-style pickles), and Raja didn't change my mind. A bowl of chilies and diced vegetables bore a funky, acrid flavor that could squinch a person's face into a permanent pucker.

Better to spend your dollars on mulligatawny, a rich, electric blend of chicken, lemon juice, and cream sparked with black pepper and fresh cilantro. The stuff was so good I could have ordered another portion right then and there. Dal soup was a simple purée of spiced lentils finished, once again, with a sharp note of cilantro. Another appetizer was keema samosa -- golden, deep-fried pastry shells stuffed with a tasty mix of ground lamb and fresh peas. Bread is a must. Choices included delicate puffs of deep-fried poori and a football-size sheet of fluffy, fresh-from-the-oven chili naan topped with diced jalapeños. Larger parties might consider the assorted bread basket, consisting of savory garlic naan, onion kulcha sprinkled with diced scallions and herbs, and a thick, wheaty disc of chapati.

Entrees show a deft hand with the seasoning, and form the true highlights of a meal at Raja: Each is inflected with its own blend of spices to produce a shimmering depth of flavor. I've mowed through eight of them and have yet to find a poor choice. Tandoori chicken arrived on an iron skillet amid a tangle of onions and bell peppers. The meat, marinated in yogurt, garlic, ginger, and spices, was perfectly seared on the outside, moist within. Boti kebab translated as tender cubes of lamb imbued with a tanginess that played superbly off the meat's animal savor. The "curry zone" (as printed on the menu) includes plenty of familiar choices. All meat dishes come with a choice of chicken, lamb, prawns, or fish. Tikka masala paired cubes of tandoor-roasted chicken with a buttery tomato-cream sauce. Vindaloo with lamb and potato struck with an intense piquancy that morphed into a lingering heat.

My favorite dishes are the more exotic ones. A mild, turmeric-stained coconut curry proved a splendid example of south Indian cookery. We had it with prawns -- hulking, juicy things -- but no matter which meat you choose, a whiff of toasted coconut adds a delightful, smoky undertone. Agra curry, described only as "a special dish of the kings of centuries ago," consisted of plump strips of deep-fried chicken in a delectable spicy brown sauce. Pasanda, from Hyderabad in central India, is a luxurious blend of ground almonds, cashews, and (in our case) lamb. Pity the fool who speaks ill of the malai kofta (not that any fools have, to my knowledge). House-made cheese dumplings, as soft as the softest gnocchi and twice as rich, come served in a reddish-orange sauce permeated with a tantalizing mosaic of spices. Biryani, my least favorite choice, was still a good one; it's perfect for those who like to eat until they burst. We had the vegetarian version, essentially a mountain of spiced pilaf tossed with grapes, slivered almonds, bell peppers, carrots, zucchini, and potatoes. Each bite offered a new blend of textures and flavors.

By comparison, our final tastes felt like afterthoughts. Chai tea lacked both the milkiness and hint of spice that you'd find at just about any other Indian restaurant. Raja was out of gulab jamun (the classic Indian dessert of rosewater-soaked cheese balls) during two visits. Kheer, a creamy rice pudding tinged with cardamom and topped with almond slices, made for a decent but unspectacular finish. Still, after the entrees I'd had it would have taken a tandoor-roasted Twinkie to send me out the door feeling less than satisfied. Put simply, Raja delivers where it counts.

About The Author

Greg Hugunin

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