I may just have a new favorite Indian restaurant, and its name is Raga.
Raga is one of the newest members of Orlando’s Restaurant Row. It took over the second-floor space that had been occupied by Antonio’s Sand Lake Road. It’s a large restaurant, much more spacious than any other Indian restaurants in the area. And it’s arguably more elegantly appointed than some of the others, too. In fact, the ambience and the second floor location immediately brought to mind Veeraswamy in London, the oldest Indian restaurant in the U.K.
But the food at Raga is better than what I experienced at Veeraswamy. Everything I tasted had a sumptuousness that indicated great care was taken in its execution. And there were plenty of little things that made the experience special.
Such as the papadum. Many, thought not all, Indian restaurants in the area will present guests with a small basket of papadum along with chutneys; sort of the Indian version of chips and salsa. Almost every Central Florida restaurant that offers papadum serves them with the same three chutneys: onion, mint and tamarind. I’ve taken to referring to them as the holy trinity of chutneys.
But at Raga, six chutneys are proffered, and only tamarind was familiar. There was a fiery tomato, a cooler raita, mint-basil, an unusual garlic, and avocado, which wasn’t anything like guacamole. And the lentil-flour wafers themselves were unusual, fashioned into little cones and baked in the tandoor oven. They had a bit of spicy heat of their own that only got hotter with some of the chutneys.
On one of my visits I had an appetizer of ragda pati, a Punjabi dish of mashed potato fritters stuffed with lentils and herbs. The fritters were warm, but they were served in a cool and sweetish yogurt sauce that also had crispy fried strips similar to tortillas and chickpeas. A wonderful appetizer.
On another visit I had the more omnipresent samosas, the trangular fried turnovers filled with potatoes and peas. Also good. Bhuna Rattan was a rare offering of scallops, breaded with rice flour and pan-fried. Delicious.
On the lunch visit I had the saag chicken, tender chunks of breast meat cooked in a mildly spiced creamy spinach sauce. It was served with pulao rice (another distinction from Veeraswamy and every other London Indian restaurant that charges extra for rice). But even more impressive was that the meal also included a large bowl of dal and a basket of hot, soft naan. It was a feast for $14.
At an evening meal with a friend, I had the chana chor garam, listed on the menu as the chef’s signature dish. It was a vegetarian dish, a specialty of Old Delhi where it is often served as street food, featuring chickpeas in a spicy gravy. Fairly simple and straightforward.
My friend had the rogan josh, lamb stewed with cardamom and cloves, spiced up with red chilies. What was notable about this dish, as well as the others, was that the flavors were layered rather than a mish-mash blend, and the spiciness, even when extra hot, did not blot out the other seasonings and flavors.
For dessert, I tried the ras malai, soft-firm discs of paneer in a sweet cooked cream.
The capacious dining room features wood floors, curved ceilings with a brick texture and a golden pattern suggesting tree branches. Massive white columns and delicate white netting help break up the space. Tables are covered with white cloth over golden, and seating is at banquettes, high-back plush chairs or white leather chairs. It is about as elegant as a dining room can be with an open kitchen at one end. (I think the full-view cooking area is another first for local Indian restaurants.)
Service was helpful and attentive, almost to a distraction. Seldom did anyone pass the table without asking if everything was OK or if anything was needed. After a while you want to just tell them to ask the last three people who came by. But if the only complaint about a restaurant is that it tries too hard to please, I’d rather have that than the alternative.
Raga is at 7559 W. Sand Lake Road, Orlando. It is on the second level, accessed by steep stairway or via elevator. It is open for lunch and dinner daily. Here is a link to ragarestaurant.com. The phone number is 407-985-2900.