329 Market Street, Downtown San Diego
Samurai Jim confessed recently he’d never eaten Indian food. Curries, yes — his mother cooks them Japanese style. But he didn’t know a Samosa from a pakora, a poori from a naan.
Well, we can’t have that, can we? Not in my posse! I started looking around for an interesting Indian restaurant, and the universe responded with a scattering of favorable reviews and blog postings for the Gaslamp’s Royal India. It’s owned by a pair of Sikh brothers, Sandeep Singh and Jagdeep Singh. According to the website, they learned to cook at their mother’s knee, and they oversee every aspect of the restaurant’s cuisine. They also own two Royal India Express fast-food stalls in Horton Plaza.
It’s a handsome, medium-sized spot in a historic building, with portraits of rajas on some walls, nooks with antique-looking Hindu sculptures in other walls, nice medium-bright lighting, and white tablecloths — and a shaded street-front patio that we couldn’t resist on a soft summer night. The waitstaff are young, smart, and universally gorgeous, all of them camera-ready for a Bollywood musical but for the gauzy costumes. Service proved excellent, too — professional and thoughtful while free of that annoying Gaylord’s-style arrogant/servile hovering. (Pax, Bob Dylan, they speak good English, but they don’t invite you up into their rooms.)
But when I opened the menu, my heart sank. Aside from a mango soup, it’s the North Indian Regular Menu, same as it ever was, same as nearly every other Indian menu in town — all those Punjabi Raj classics, déjà vu all over again. And, we soon found out, they would be cooked mainly to the most naïve American tastes. This wasn’t going to be college-level Indian Cuisine 101 after all, but middle-school Indian for people raised on burgers and McNuggets — Gaslamp Indian Cuisine for Dummies.
Pappads (deep-fried cracker-breads) come to the table gratis with two dips: a very sweet tamarind colloid and a spicy cilantro salsa. We started with a couple of plates of veggie appetizers, each topped with another pappadum covering one Samosa, a few pakoras, and a handful of bhaji. Samosas are triangular stuffed pastries. “These are so popular,” I told Jim, “they’ve even become staples in the Horn of Africa — Ethiopians and Somalians call them sambusa. They can be stuffed with almost anything — ground lamb or chicken, potatoes, veggies — I’ve even had Somalian dessert versions stuffed with melted cream cheese and fruit.”
Usually, Samosas are baked. Royal India’s, with a flaky pastry, were apparently fried. We bit in. The filling was mashed potato and peas. Joining the posse for the first time was Anton, a young Chinese-ethnic Indonesian, accustomed to high spicing (“when my mother cooks Indonesian-style”) at home. “I thought Indian food would have more seasoning than this,” he said. “Are these always so bland?” “No,” I answered in a hollow tone resembling the little “thud” my computer emits when it’s about to crash to blue screen (or used to, anyway, before XP). “Why don’t they cook it the authentic way?” he continued. “Do they think Americans won’t like it?” “Maybe,” I said. “Maybe in the Gaslamp, they assume most people won’t know any better.”
Instead of a pervasive, ground-spice mixture (e.g., turmeric and other powdered spices), the mashed potatoes were lightly studded with whole spices — coriander seed, cumin, black and yellow mustard seeds, and perhaps a few cardamom seeds...or were those nigella? Just then, Michelle remarked on the effect: “I’m biting into little solids that turn into sand in my mouth. Is that typically Indian?” “Yes,” I told her. “In the north, especially, Indians enjoy whole spices to bite into for a sudden full hit of the spice flavor.” That’s fine with me — but I missed the whole warming, mystifying blend of spices that I’ve come to expect in Samosas.
Glancing through the restaurant window, we spotted a family of Sikhs at a table, and I remembered my years as a civil servant in San Francisco, eating scrumptious home-cooked Sikh Samosas at all the holiday potluck office parties. Those had the full spice blend. (Where’s chief clerk Sarwan Singh Boparai’s sainted great-cook wife when you need her?)
Bhaji are deep-fried onion slices, like American onion rings but in a lighter, cleaner batter with more interesting spicing. They were greaseless, simple, but good. Pakora are vegetable fritters in another light batter. Most of them seemed to be filled with cabbage and onions, while a few, disc-shaped, contained circles of plain-cooked solid potato. All just okay.
The most interesting starter was a thick, sweet mango soup. “I’d like to spread this on a peanutbutter sandwich,” said Jim. It came with a wedge of lemon. For the second go-round, I gave it a heavy spritz. It was better then — more balanced and interesting, less viscous.
When ordering entrées, the question of how spicy to order them was a dilemma. Anton and I could both handle authentic heat. Jim, maybe. Michelle, from small-town Pennsylvania — probably not. I hedged our bets, ordering most dishes “medium” but asked for the Madras curry “eight on a scale of ten,” assuring beautiful Liya, the waitress, that I’d spent some time in Kerala and Chennai (Madras) and really meant it.
Well, the Madras curry arrived at a heat level of maybe 2.7. “But this isn’t spicy at all,” I said, tasting. Liya overheard and hastened to bring some table hot sauce, but that’s not the same as having the spice properly cooked into the dish from the start (and she knew it, too, and commiserated). Curries are typically cooked in flavor layers — first you sauté a select group of aromatic spices; next into the skillet go garlic and/or ginger (if using) and hot peppers and perhaps more spices. Then you start adding heavier ingredients — onions, other aromatics, later meat and veggies. You get the idea. Hot pepper (whether fresh or powdered) typically goes in early, and in sufficient quantity to play a strong but integrated role among the flavors. It’s not hot to be hot; it’s hot to taste fabulous combined with everything else. So a mild Madras curry isn’t a Madras curry, it’s a San Diego curry. Adding hot-pepper paste after it’s cooked does it no good at all.
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.
(Recommended reading: White Tiger, by Aravind Adiga. This recently published tale of a murderous chauffeur won’t tell you about Indian food, but it will tell you with relentless, angry brilliance about today’s India.)
329 Market Street, 619-269-9999, royalindia.com.
- HOURS: Open daily 11:00 a.m.–10:30 p.m. Lunch buffet daily 11:00 a.m.–2:30 p.m.
- PRICES: Appetizers, $3–$8 (more for group appetizers); entrées, $12–$25; desserts, $8–12. Lunch buffets, $12.
- CUISINE AND BEVERAGES: Cuisine of north India, adapted for American tastes. Indian beers, mainly American wines at very high markups; full bar with fun cocktails.
- PICK HITS: Rogan josh; dal makhni; mango soup.
- NEED TO KNOW: Flashy website, but menu (with no prices, and only partially visible) does not scroll down. At least a dozen vegetarian and vegan dishes. Outdoor patio dining available.