”An explosion of color as much as of flavor” would perhaps be the most obvious observation regarding Indian cuisine. Gather a group of friends around a table at a good Indian restaurant and you'll feel like you're in a Bollywood movie. The innocent white of basmati rice, the deep green of a coriander and mint chutney, the devilish rustiness of a Vindaloo or the blackened red of Kashmiri chilies.
In the west, many restaurants have successfully approximated Indian food, and in the UK, they have turned it into a cuisine all of its own. I don't think I'm off the mark when I say that I think that the Indian food that many of us have fallen in love with is actually the UK style curries.
”riga, however, isn't exactly known for offering much for curryholics”
Riga, however, isn't exactly known for offering much for curryholics like myself. The most well-known Indian restaurant, Indian Raja, should therefore be the safest bet. Over the course of more than a year, I've been visiting this restaurant every now and then, and I now feel ready to sum up my impressions.
Browsing through the menu of this Old Town restaurant, I feel there's a good chance that I'll enjoy my stay. Both the Jalfrezi and the Karahi belong to my favorite dishes. The Makhani is great for days when I'm feeling mellow, and the Madras and the Vindaloo are good choices when I want to go to war. However, with the exception of one visit, the curries let me down. Badly and repeatedly. The dishes are marked in the menu with various numbers of chilies, ranging from mild (no chili) to ”extremely spicy” (three chilies). After having gone through all variants, I am forced to conclude that this is just for show. Even friends of mine who are not at all used to fiery foods couldn't discern any hint of spiciness, even when ordering dishes marked with two chilies. Certain Indian dishes are to sweat over, struggle with, have almost a hate-love relationship with. If you go to Indian Raja hoping for this experience, forget it. It is not going to happen.
For those of you who don't enjoy napalm on your tongue, or who are just as happy without it, I still have bad news. On most of my visits, the food was severely lacking also in the flavor department. On occasion, it's been unacceptably tasteless. And again, this sentiment is not only my own, but is shared by several friends who are usually fine with less than overwhelming flavors.
”if we weren't out in public, we'd lick the plate clean”
However, I won't write this review using a butcher's knife only. I did have some positive experiences. The Tom Yum soup (whatever a Thai dish is doing in an Indian restaurant) is instantly recognizable as such, but even though it's a decent attempt, it doesn't quite make it over the finishing line. The first thing I would change is to replace the tiny shrimp and pieces of mushroom that Indian Raja uses with the large, chunky prawns and mushrooms of the original. The jackpot, however, was hit when me and a friend shared the chili paneer. Unless you count the happily surprised ”mmm!”-s, conversation stopped dead, and we both agreed that if we weren't out in public, we'd lick the plate clean. It was really that good.
”probably the best service I've had in this city”
Saving the best for last, the one lasting impression I take with me from Indian Raja is what is probably the best service I've had in this city. Working on following my own ”thou shalt not be silent about lame food” commandment, when the waitress came up and asked how the food was, I told her that it wasn't quite in accordance with my expectations. Now, normally, waiting staff in Riga either giggles, sighs or snorts, and then just walks away. This waitress, however, didn't hesitate for a second, but immediately offered to tell the chef to make me new food. Standing ovations!
All in all, though, you can probably guess where this review is heading. I've told you about the food, but I have yet to tell you about the prices. They are, in my opinion, much too steep for what you get. A cheap main dish is around €12, and that does in true Latvian fashion not include rice. I have to say that I'm growing seriously tired of always being charged good money for plain white rice, which is basically for free at the wholesaler's. It should obviously be for free, and included in the main dish, otherwise it just leaves a bad taste in your mouth. So a normal meal consisting of a main course, rice, naan bread and a beer will set you back between €20-30, and this is way too expensive for this kind of quality.
My most cherished memories of Indian food are vibrant, rich and colorful. Regrettably, my memories of Indian Raja are anemic; washed out and thin, like an old painting in a sunlit shop window.