You can order most of the non-veg curries with a choice of flesh — chicken, lamb, shrimp, fish, or lobster. For the Madras curry I chose shrimp (Chennai is just off the East Indian coast), and the shrimp were tender. The curry was bright red, tomatoey, not bad but for the uncharacteristic mildness. The spices in it were whole and crunchy, as in the Samosas.
The other curries had a heat level of one, and (surprisingly) the dal makhni (lentils) was back up near a three. “I bet those Sikhs in there can get theirs as hot as they want it,” said Jim.
The best dish, hot or not, was the rogan josh, chosen because it’s such a central dish in Indian non-veg cuisine and a good introduction to Indian flavors. The tender lamb chunks were sauced in a rich, dark, tomato-based curry, as satisfying a lamb stew as you’ll eat anywhere in the world — and actually much more elegant than the occasional rogan josh that I ate in India. (I think that there, they might’ve used the meat from the scrawny goats grazing on the railroad tracks. I never saw a single sheep anywhere in South Asia. Goats, plenty, even scampering around the courtyard of Swayambunath Temple overlooking Katmandu. [It’s a Buddhist temple so everybody’s welcome there...you don’t even have to be human this incarnation.] So what species do you think ghosht — “meat” — might actually be?)
Among my favorites of the standard universal north Indian entrées — when done well (that is, not overdone) — is chicken tikka masala. This consists of tandoor-baked, skinless breast chunks in a luxurious tomato-and-cream curry. For a great version try the Indian restaurant on Fillmore and Waller — oops, that’s Frisco, wrong city. At Royal India, the chicken was dry and tough, the sauce unspectacular.
Next step in North Indian 101 is, of course, a tandoori dish — marinated protein quick-roasted in an incredibly hot (1800˚F) clay oven. Under a skilled tandoor-master (most of them Sikhs), everything will emerge tender. I made my best-bet choice, booti kebabs (thick lamb slices). They emerged still a bit pink at the center but quite tough nonetheless (I don’t know what cut they used, felt like leg), and the marinade didn’t thrill us at all. (Frankly, India Air — the low-rent domestic carrier, not Air India, the showboat international airline — did better with the seasonings on its in-flight tandoori chicken thigh on the Chennai-Calcutta run and also offered an outstanding ground lamb sikh kebab on the Calcutta-Katmandu leg. Both were full-out spicy — not pain-spicy, right-spicy! I’ve never yet found an American Indian restaurant that has come close to India Air in the tandoori-seasoning department.)
I wanted to include a veg dish for balance and authenticity, and when I saw dal makhni on the menu, it leaped out. Dal is lentils. Together with rice (dal baht, in Nepalese, the constant dinner of trekkers), they make a complete vegan protein, the staple of the people the way that rice and beans are a staple throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. All our curries came with basmati rice, of course, so that part was accounted for. Royal India’s dal — unexpectedly, whole brown lentils rather than the more typical, delicate pink or yellow split moong dal or masoor dal — tasted to me like the most soulful dish on the menu — complex seasoning, medium-hot, alive in some way that the other dishes weren’t.
For North Indian food, you want to order one of the tandoor-baked breads for mopping up sauces. I chose my usual favorite, kabuli naan, a leavened bread stuffed, usually, with pistachios, raisins, and feta-like paneer cheese. Here, the stuffing consisted of shredded sweetened coconut and raisins, which struck me as relatively austere, despite its sweetness. (Try that place on Fillmore and Waller…or Gourmet India, next to the entry to the Horton Plaza parking garage.)
Unlike many Indian restaurants, Royal India offers a long list of wines, as well as cocktails and Indian beers. The bad news is that they’re screamingly overpriced. An Oregon Gewürztraminer (ideal with spicy food) goes for (gawp!) $65. The last several times I ordered this grape in restaurants, bottles were $35 and under, including authentic Trimbach from Alsace. Ferrari-Carano Sauvignon Blanc (not their Chard, their Sauv!) also costs $65 — approximately twice what most other restaurants charge for it. Since I don’t like beer, I chose a nice “Indian mojito” ($10) instead of wine to see me through the meal, and my friends shared a couple of tall bottles of tasty, authentic Taj Mahal beer ($10 each).
To complete the course in Elementary Indian Cuisine, I ordered us a dessert of gulab jaman (often spelled jamun). Waitress Liya described it accurately as “like little donuts soaked in cardamom syrup.” Precisely. But I’ve had more tender, luscious versions; this one reminded me of packaged gulab jamun mix. And then, missing from the syrup was the classic top-off of fragrant rosewater — the difference between merely tasty and irresistibly sexy.
So, exquisite Liya, I won’t be back after all. I’d almost rather put forth the effort to do it myself from my dozen Sahni and Jaffrey and other guys’ cookbooks — I’ve already got the spices, right down to the nigella and asafetida, just not the time or energy. Don’t get me wrong. The food at Royal India is refined, classy, greaseless — good! Two stars means…good! The flavors are clear, not muddy. Nothing tastes like cheap buffet curry-sludge — in fact, if I wanted a lunchtime Indian buffet, this is probably the place I’d choose for it. But my local favorite remains Gourmet India at the entrance to the Horton Plaza garage because their menu is more interesting and regional, and their cooking is bolder and more authentic. Alternatively, for southern vegetarian, I like Madras up on Black Mountain Road, too.
If you ever go to India, not an easy place to be, you may soon want to run back home or anywhere else, but as the British learned, you’ll find yourself craving its authentic food forevermore. This probably won’t do it for you.