Before Raga Restaurant Lounge & Bar opened in October it already had generated significant buzz. The collaboration with Hari Pulapaka, chef-owner of Cress in DeLand, and chef Dominic Sarkar, a veteran of posh hotels and restaurants in Asia and the United States, was an intriguing concept for local foodies.
Then in August, Pulapaka bowed out because of the demands of his own restaurant and his responsibilities as a faculty member at Stetson University in DeLand.
With Sarkar at the helm, Raga was still arguably the most anticipated local opening in the fall. And it was clearly worth the wait.
Once home to an Italian restaurant, the second-floor space in the Fountains Plaza on Orlando's Restaurant Row has been transformed into an elegant confection of a dining room. The hard edges of the wood floors are softened by high ceilings with graceful arches. White tablecloths add crispness to the dining room; artisan lighting gives the room a subtle sense of playfulness. The seating is a mix of regular tables and tables linked by massive banquettes accented with plush upholstery. The dining room is simply stunning.
From the open kitchen at the end of room, the heart of the restaurant comes to life in a swirl of savory aromas and the enticing sizzles and pops.
The menu is a thoughtful blend of Indian, Pakistani and Middle Eastern cuisines, reflecting Sarkar's stays in New Delhi and Dubai. And on the back page he shares his global fusion vision, a limited menu of Mediterranean and European inspired dishes with a restrained ode to Indian cookery.
Start with the masala Goan crab cake ($9), a jumbo lump crab cake with mustard seeds and fresh herbs. The texture is not as rich and flaky as a Maryland cake. However, the cake's flavor is good with the masala spice mix adding earthy notes.
Dhaba chili chicken ($10) was an addictive bowl of fire and texture. Boneless chicken breast was crispy fried then sautéed with onion and fresh peppers. If your palate is timid, pair the chili chicken with the raita ($4), a blend of tangy yogurt with chopped onion, cucumber, potato, tomato and mint topped with roasted cumin and black salt.
Masala papadum ($5) was a fresh spin on lentil wafers. Created as crepes and then wrapped into cones, the papadum was served with a dip of chopped onions, cucumber, tomatoes, cilantro, crunchy bell pepper and sweet mango chutney.
For entrees, butter chicken ($16) was listed as a "Chef's signature dish." The shredded poultry was slow-simmered in a tomato sauce with a deft touch of fenugreek, an herb with a remarkably pleasant sweet-bitter taste.
The awadhi lamb korma ($20), a creamy curry of meat, cashews and cardamom, was an indulgent choice. The meat was fork tender and the sauce had notes of cool mint and smoke.
Service was knowledgeable and friendly.
Clearly Raga has raised the bar for Indian restaurants in Orlando.
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Raga Restaurant Bar & Lounge
Where: 7559 W. Sand Lake Road, Orlando (in the Fountains Plaza)
When: 5-10:30 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 5-11 p.m. Friday and Saturday