Monday, October 11, 2010

The Raja Fine Indian Cuisine

Promoting The Recognition of Cuisine as a Manifestation of Culture.

The Raja Fine Indian Cuisine
Indian cuisine is a vast and sophisticated subject. India’s states and territories differ, cuisine-wise, as much if not more than the regional cuisines of other countries. Caste, culture. religious doctrine, geography, and climate have all played an immense role in preventing the emergence of a truly definitive national Indian cuisine. Despite the diversity, some coalescing threads surface on closer inspection. However, most of what we consider authentic Indian cuisine is a product of the British imperial influence, which resulted in a prolific Anglo-Indian restaurant cuisine that panders to the global masses.

I initially became familiar with this style of restaurant cooking while living in England on two separate occasions. Going out for an “Indian” or a “Curry” or getting an Indian “takeaway” was a national pastime. The idea of a curry is, in fact, a definition that the British imposed on India’s cookery to describe any spiced dish under the generic term “curry.” Historically, Indians referred to their individual dishes by very specific regional names.

Living in England, I was struck by the emergence of authentic regional Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi restaurants, and the elevation of these unique cuisines to as elegant, sophisticated and refined as any other cuisine. Today, the Indian food industry in the United Kingdom accounts for two-thirds of all eating out, and is estimated to serves about 2.5 million customers every week.

I was pleased to recently sample the cuisine of London’s new Raja restaurant.

Restaurateur Zafar Quazi was born in Bangladesh (the borders of the present-day Bangladesh were established with the partition of Bengal and India in 1947, when the region became East Pakistan, part of the newly formed nation of Pakistan) and later moved to the Ukraine to study civil engineering. He spent six years in Great Britain, three of them in Scotland running a restaurant in Inverness, before coming to Canada. While in Scotland, Quazi met his Ukrainian wife, Olena. They have two daughters. The Quazi’s first Canadian endeavour was in Brantford, followed by the Tandoori Grill in Fergus, in turn followed by the highly successful and celebrated Raja Fine Indian Cuisine in Stratford. Two years ago, Quazi set his sights on downtown London, Ontario.

Zahirul Chowdury, twelve years younger than Quazi, left Bangladesh in 2001. Chowdury immigrated to Canada and studied at the University of St. John in New Brunswick before relocating to Ontario, where he was introduced to Quazi by his brother. At the time, Quazi was actively looking for someone to manage his new Stratford restaurant, and Chowdury more than fit the bill.

When the time was right to open a second Raja in London, Quazi offered Chowdury a partnership so that he could manage as well as co-own the new enterprise. The Raja Fine India Cuisine is located in the premises most recently occupied by Santorini, and before that, for decades, the legendary Mario’s (known for its late-night panzerotti) and later, the more upscale Marios and Jaggz.

The Raja serves upscale Indian cuisine in sophisticated and elegant surroundings by a knowledgeable, well-trained staff. The service is white linen, deferential and friendly. The cutlery and crystal are elegant, and the china is fine Royal Doulton Hospitality Ware. After being seated, diners are offered crisp, crunchy poppadoms served alongside a dazzling selection of vibrantly coloured condiments, ranging from sweet to sour to spicy, to get the taste buds tingling. The condiments include: gooseberry, coriander, tamarind, mango, yogurt and mint, and lime pickle. 
There are also a number of exotic breads (naan, roti and paratha) on offer to accompany and complement various courses, all freshly baked in Raja’s tandoor (clay oven). The delicious Peshawari naan is stuffed with almonds, dried apricots, raisins, flaked dried coconut, and whipping cream, and seems more like cake than bread.
Share the mixed platter with vegetable pakora, chicken tikka, sheek kabab, and onion bhajee, all served on a sizzling platter. Or pick a garden salad or soup course (the menu includes mulligatawny and lentil),  then choose from chicken, beef, lamb, vegetarian, or seafood dishes, which run the gamut from mild to very spicy. From the ubiquitous Punjab-inspired Butter Chicken, boneless, marinated in yogurt and spices, cooked in the tandoor and presented in creamy tomato gravy, to the very spicy and hottest of dishes on the menu, vindaloo, made with your choice of  lamb, beef, or chicken. Another house specialty is the unusual Bengal Duck, which is prepared with sweet chili sauce, coconut and almond, and has a decidedly complex hot and sweet taste.

At Raja, Rogan Josh is tender morsels of braised beef, slow-cooked with an aromatic spice mixture and yogurt. Yogurt is frequently used in Indian cuisine as a marinade to tenderize the meat. Rogan Josh derives its name from its rich appearance, which is generally a result of ground chilies or brightly coloured good-quality paprika combined with fresh tomatoes. Rogan Josh takes on a contemporary twist with lean lamb chunks, ghee, garam masala, garlic, ginger, and fresh cilantro.
The menu also features a heady selection of fish and seafood dishes, such as King Prawn Jhalfrezi (stir-fried with fresh green chilies, tomatoes, green peppers, and fresh coriander, and finished with fresh ginger and garlic), fish (salmon), Masala, and King Prawn Sag.

The perfectly prepared Pulao rice, aromatic basmati with onion, cumin and mild spices, ordered separately, is not an afterthought but an integral part of dinner. As well, vegetarian selections figure prominently here, as in all Indian cooking. There are nearly a dozen meticulously spiced vegetarian dishes on the extensive menu. Vegetable specialties include: Aloo Gobhi, Chana Masala (chick peas), Sag Paneer (spinach with homemade cottage cheese), Bharta (eggplant), and Daal Tarka (lentils in garlic). Vegan dishes are also available.
The Raja has plenty of personality, and the dining room has character and sophistication with its deep red painted walls and white accents. The cuisine is superior. The service rivals anything in the city.

The Raja
428 Clarence St. (North of Dundas)
Lunch: Mon.–Sat. 11:30 am – 2:30 pm
Dinner: Mon.–Sat. 5 pm. – 10 pm
                      Sun 5 pm – 9 pm
Lunch $7 – $14
Dinner $14 – $25
Prix Fixe Dinner for Two – $85