Raag, the new darling of the 50th & France dining ’hood, heralds its focus as “progressive Indian cuisine.” It’s Indian, without a doubt, and sublimely delicious. You’ll recognize the usual suspects in the lineup of lamb-chicken-veggies, but this is not your suburban cookie cutter, showcasing tandoori this and biryani that. Nor is the “authentic” menu straight from the subcontinent. (Trust me, for I’ve eaten my way across it more times than my bank account can justify.) Instead, it applies what innovative Western-style chefs are doing in their own realms to those classic, familiar Indian staples — a mixed marriage that enhances, rather than muddies, both.
Examples from the list of small plates ($9-$15): burrata salad, served with tandoori stone fruits — peaches, plums — lounging on mesclun and a plate painting of sweet and sour squash puree. It tastes exactly as it reads, which is good but not breathtaking. Or the crab kataifi, starring a ball of sweet crab meat and cream cheese (shades of Leeann Chin), coated in a hairy tangle of crisped phyllo strands, then treated to a roast ghee sauce that’s a deep, rich mahogany infused with a bit of heat — a modest starter.
Better: the pair of samosas clasping a rich, juicy duck confit, accompanied by sweet-tart apricot sauce mined with tiny particles of heat that burst like mini-fireworks in your mouth. Delicious. Here’s a another winner, despite its name: Da-Belly Slider. Choose your protein (we went with duck again) to be dressed in peanut dabeli, along with wisps of red cabbage and a companionable relish of apple and onion. Or choose chutney-glazed ribs or paneer cannelloni. See what I mean?
Pointer for next time: We noticed a quartet of people at the next table enjoying a presentation of five little jars, which they opened by pulling bitty puffed and stuffed pooris off the top to reveal what the menu describes as “fruity and spicy concoctions.” Whaaat? Yet they assured me they’d enjoyed this treat many times on their visits to India. I can’t wait to get my mitts on it.
Instead, we proceeded with some winning main dishes, plated to share, starting with my all-time fave, palak paneer. A creamy bed of spinach — typical — revealed a subtle infusion of cinnamon, not typical at all but welcome; in it bobbed gnocchi-sized fried dumplings of cottage cheese. Soothing, nice. So was the chicken chettinad, a rich, dense stew clasping tender bits of chicken in a tawny pool of Malabar peppers (sweet, not fierce) softened with coconut cream. (Oh, they do offer chicken tikka, but “re-formed.”)
Then on to the Kashmiri rogan josh, a composition of long-braised lamb (neck and chops) braised with saffron, ginger and fennel seed into a rich, complex gravy, perfect to spoon over the accompanying long-grained rice. It leaves a lingering aftertaste of welcome but not overpowering heat. Finally, a stir-fry of cauliflower and green peas, again infused with well-curated spices — forward and full-bodied. A definite favorite.
Of course, we ordered naan ($3-$6) — one infused with wild mushrooms and truffle essence and another stuffed with garlic: hearty and delicious, with a lingering mouthfeel. And dessert ($7-$8), just because. A mille feuille filled with poached pears and scented with cardamom proved boring, while the boreks — six little “cigar” rolls of thin, crispy pastry — came with matcha (green tea) ice cream, cooling but not rich (and that’s fine), along with a cascade of macerated sour cherries. Spot on.
The cafe’s colorful back bar is a hint that the cocktail list is not to be ignored. It reads well, but we stuck with Indian beer, always a good fit. The room floats in understated touches of soft blue and hazy gray, anchored by an ivory “stone” fireplace and an evocative mural. Tables filled up fast. Get one.
3812 W. 50th St.