I know a lot of people, myself included, are waiting for Santa Fe to suddenly bloom a slew of dingy, British-style "take away" joints—the intersection of Indian food and the taco cart—and enter a new era of hole-in-the-wall curry peddlers. But we'd have to slip into an alternate reality in order for that to happen. In the meantime, we must lean on the stalwart stew pots of India House and India Palace and the quirky kitchen at Annapurna's World Vegetarian Café. We also must energetically embrace the deft flavor fabrications of newcomer Raaga.
Filling the Agua Fria Street location left empty since Mauka closed, Raaga is positioning itself as "fine Indian dining," and goes by the technical moniker of Paddy Rawal's Raaga. I can't say I agree with the naming convention. It has a kind of spooky pompousness like, say, Bram Stoker's Dracula, but most diners probably won't care what it's called after the first bite.
The dishes have an unusually crisp presence and brightness of flavor that is too often lost in the thick sauces of many Indian restaurants. The lamb korma ($14.95), for example—tender and helpless bits of lamb drowning in a murky yogurt-and-cashew cream—played across the tongue like a symphony of fenugreek following a quartet of classic Indian spices. Paired with an impossibly light and mercifully salt-free ginger-and-mint naan flatbread, the dish can cause one to forget table manners (apologies to any surrounding tables who were splashed with korma in my frenzy).
Among the best dishes I sampled at Raaga was a baingan bhartha ($12.95), a roasted eggplant dish popular in Punjab that includes turmeric, tomatoes and onions. There's no real way to explain the grand and satisfying, almost nurturing, flavor pulled from such a simple blend—except to presume masterful roasting and a superhuman spice palate.
If the eponymous chef and owner, Paddy Rawal, does have a mutant superpower that enables him to shoot perfect spicing out of his fingers, I assume a sidekick is at work in the kitchen as well; I could have done with less salt in one of the chutneys and more balance from an inventive dish that tops a stylized pico de gallo with lightly fried okra. But niggles such as those are a small price to pay for the creativity, intrigue and grandiose plating that come out of Rawal's kitchen.
A chunky salad of cucumbers, peppers, fresh greens, tomatoes, pinela, imlee and balsamic vinegar could serve as a cheap ($5.95) meal in itself. Another starter of cauliflower florets tossed in garlic (lasooni gobhi, $5.95) looked like asteroids hurled straight out of Indian mythology, and tasted equally bold and heavenly. Desserts follow a similar pattern of tradition encountering innovation.
The menu at Raaga is large enough to wander through like a dazed traveler exploring the subcontinent with no purpose greater than curiosity and adventure. Exactly how Rawal, who also runs a restaurant called Mumbai in East Lansing, Mich., will mesh into the culinary collage of Santa Fe is a hard question to answer. Much like his dishes, he seems an almost alien creature, a synthesis of old and new, a bridge from here to somewhere else.
But isn’t that usually what we’re looking for when we eat out?
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