The bond between British and Indian food is complex and well documented (soccer fans may recall that whilst playing for Manchester United, David Beckham would celebrate a victory with a post-game curry at his local ‘Indian’) but even so, the relationship has evolved greatly and continues to do so. Historically, the Brits have been fond of putting their own (often unfortunate) spin on India’s regional dishes and creating new ‘mainstream’ dishes such as curry and chips or Chicken Tikka Masala spread thickly in a sandwich. There’s even a strange tendency to draw other cultures into the mix which is how it somehow becomes acceptable to find (Russian) Chicken Kiev in the UK freezer section — but with a creamy curry filling! Even curry powder itself, with its distinctively pungent taste, is another entirely British invention never actually used in any authentic Indian cooking. So if you don’t like curry powder, don’t assume that you won’t care for Indian food — because almost certainly, there will be no ‘curry powder’ involved. Nowadays true Indian cuisine in all its myriad forms is being recognized and lauded for its diversity and also for an increasing ability to shine all on its own.
The Raja, located on Clarence Street here in London (and an older sister establishment on George Street in Stratford) will appeal to customers who are seeking an upmarket Indian cuisine experience or indeed, a superior meal. Restaurateur Zahirul Chowdhury breaks down the success formula for Raja into three basic points: “excellent food, service and atmosphere.” The restaurant can seat 116 people in total — this includes seating on a patio outside — and there is also a separate lounge which is popular for smaller office parties or private get-togethers. On both New Year’s Eve and Valentine’s Day special dinners are offered and are well attended.
Chowdhury, who also credits “always listening carefully and appreciating what customers have to say”, shows impressive attention to detail, visible throughout the restaurant from the elegant Sant’Andrea flatware to the white linen cloths that cover the tables. Rich yellow-gold and warm reds — perhaps echoing the spices that are used in the meals — are used to great effect on walls and fabric and contribute to the feeling that one has gained admission to a private club.
As well as a respectable wine list, Raja offers a thoughtful and varied selection of beverages ranging from specialty cocktails (Asian Pear martinis are popular) to beer, with Indian brands Kingfisher and Cobra being firm favorites. Chowdhury is currently investigating the introduction of British beers on draught which are often regarded as a natural accompaniment to curry and, again, a nod to the high UK demographic of London diners. The non-alcoholic lassi (a rich but refreshing yogurt based drink) is available in a variety of flavours such as mango.
The Raja menu is extremely varied and features chicken, fish, seafood, lamb, beef and one of the unique house specialties, Bengal Duck. Vegetarians have an extensive selection to choose from and there are also pre-selected meals and appetizers to inspire or share. Portion size is more than reasonable. For those who are concerned, the level of spiciness and heat is very clearly identified on the menu — although a great many dishes (such as Korma) are mild and creamy — but the staff is extremely helpful and affable in this regard so there is no reason to be shy about asking.
There are two Tandoors (clay ovens) in operation at Raja and all breads are baked fresh in house. As well as the more familiar naan flatbreads there are also whole wheat roti and a Peshwari naan which boasts an almond and apricot filling. Local ingredients are used whenever possible and the meat sources are exclusively halal.
Desserts can sometimes be uninspired or a bit predictable at Indian restaurants but the Raja counters this nicely by offering a variety of simple but elegant sorbets — an ideal way to conclude a meal of many courses.
Although Raja strives to make dining a regal experience they are also eminently pragmatic. During the weekday lunch hour, when time may be at a premium, there’s a guarantee that lunch will be served within 20 minutes of being ordered. A similar nod to real life is reflected in their menu for children. It offers a friendly introduction to Indian food in the form of mild dishes such as Chicken Tikka or chicken fingers. The Raja buffet — available on Sundays — also gives a very affordable sampling of some of the more popular dishes and is useful to those who might be unsure about what they might enjoy.
Chowdhury’s simple trinity of excellent customer service, outstanding food and superior staff is definitely working, because this Raja certainly rules!
The Raja Fine Indian Cuisine
428 Clarence Street, London
TUESDAY- SATURDAY 11:30 AM – 2:30PM
SUNDAY BUFFET 12 PM-3 PM
TUESDAY-SATURDAY 5 PM – 10 PM
SUNDAY BUFFET 5 PM – 9 PM
SUE SUTHERLAND WOOD is a freelance writer who also works in the London Public Library system. She lives in London with her teenage sons and a floating population of dogs and cats.