Monday, December 15, 2008

Review: Raga in Brooklyn; and Food Bias

En route to Brooklyn with one vegetarian in tow, I had no idea where my friends and I would wind up eating dinner the other night. We were totally directionless, or to spin it more positively, we were up for anything.

We were headed to a party near Smith Street and Bergen. By the time we popped out of the subway, we were all pretty hungry and not in a mood to nitpick our choices (as I usually do, which may be the number one source of fights between Boyfriend and me – I like to wander and review every single option, but in the meanwhile, I get hungry to the point of cranky and then complain horrifically that there is nothing quite right to eat).

On this night, no crankiness and no wandering looking for false hope of perfect food. No. Instead, Indian restaurant with open tables. Too many free tables? Is that a bad sign? Who cares! Vegetarian options aplenty. No wait. Inexpensive. Let’s eat.

The place, Raga (142 Smith St.), was dead. Two other tables of diners were engrossed in their food, and there was no music. This was on a Saturday night, so it really wasn’t a great sign, especially in Brooklyn during holiday shopping season. But I’ll be damned: The food was pretty good. How good? I would absolutely rather go back there than take a gamble on an unknown Indian restaurant.

Later, when we got to the party, I started talking to this woman who had lived in the neighborhood for 12 years. She gave me some restaurant recommendations in the area and in Manhattan. Then I asked her if she had ever been to the Indian place down the block.

“Oh, that place? Yeah, it’s terrible.”

She said she had been there twice, once for standard Indian fare and once for some special sandwiches that they were trying out. “It’s always dead.”

Her opinion is suspicious for two reasons, though. First, the topic of food came up because she asked if Boyfriend and I cooked, and we enthusiastically said yes. She argued that too few people knew basic life skills anymore, like cooking and mending. We wholeheartedly agreed and mentioned the fact that our grocery list usually comprises produce, meat, cheese, eggs, and milk, rather than boxed foods, frozen things, and canned soups. But then as we continued talking about food, she mentioned a restaurant where she orders take-out so often that she got a free bottle of wine with her order the other night for being a loyal repeat customer. Second, she went on and one about a Manhattan Japanese restaurant that had a lovely house-made tofu, but when I mentioned a very popular Japanese restaurant less than a mile from her house where I had eaten and which also had wonderful homemade tofu, she had never heard of it.

In need of a second opinion about Raga, I asked one of the hosts of the party if he had been there. “Oh that place? It’s always dead,” he said.

“Yeah, but have you eaten there?” I asked.

“No. I mean… it’s always dead. It doesn’t look very good.”

It’s really a shame when the popular perception of an eatery colors a person’s ability to just taste the food and judge it for what it is. But it happens, and in big cities where dining out is taken very seriously, it happens a lot. Raga got 3 starts on Yelp and better ratings but from only six reviewers on CitySearch. The main complaint was service and delivery.

This exact same attitude prevails with my all-time favorite Indian restaurant: India Clay Oven in San Francisco (2436 Clement St. at 25th Ave.).

Nearly everyone I’ve talked to and most reviewers on web sites hate Clay Oven. [*Note: I haven’t lived in San Francisco since July 2007, and I’ve just now looked at Yelp and found that the reviews have improved significantly since around October 2008. My statements herein refer to the prevailing attitude that I experienced between 2003, when I first started eating there, and 2007 when I left the city.] Again, the main complaint is that the staff are rude (they are) and the delivery service is terrible (one Valentine’s Day, we waited close to two hours for delivery).

However, the food is awesome.

In both instances, hysteria over bad service has created social pressure to also dis the food. I think a lot of people are intimidated to state unequivocally their what they genuinely like and dislike. There’s a lot of snobbery in the food world, and while there is something to be said for the person whose palate who has become endeared to high-fructose corn syrup (what would ketchup be with out it?) and partially hydrogenated palm oil, I wish more foodie people had a greater tolerance for personal taste and allowed people to say what they truly like and don’t like without criticism. A good example is chocolate. Dark chocolate is held in higher regard than milk, which is seen as somehow adulterated, but that attitude is completely hypocritical the moment you pair dark chocolate with an amaretto truffle filling, cordial cherries, or fucking acai berries (oh, it has come to that!).

I for one have been awful about this kind of thing in the past, and I hope I am learning not to criticize people for what they like.

Back to Clay Oven: The really funny thing is that the owners have three restaurants in the city. They are basically the same except for location, staff, and the name of the restaurant. The other two are regarded highly and receive generally good reviews on user-driven web sites.

To this day, I hold India Clay Oven as the bar against which I measure all other Indian dishes of similar style (northern Indian cuisine). Some of the dishes are spicy, while others are loaded with ghee in a way that makes them homey. The mint chutney is never quite the same twice but always packs a slow-burning heat. The tamarind sauce is always sweet, but never syrupy. The naan is always warm and soft. And only once have I declared, “You can make it really hot” and regretted it.

I think the problem with both Raga and Clay Oven is that the general public is not willing to overlook issues of service, atmosphere, and popularity in a trendy neighborhood, even if the food is good. Alternatively, it could very well be that I enjoy Indian food of a different style than most other Americans.

At Raga, we ordered all vegetarian dishes, and all very saucy things: saag paneer (spinach, ghee, and spices with hunks of farmer’s cheese the consistency of firm tofu), chana masala (chickpeas in a tomato-based sauce with onions), vegetable dhansak (the menu said this was Persian-style, but it is traditionally mixed vegetables in a sauce made of some kind of dal (lentils, chickpeas, etc.), and one other mixed vegetable dish, though I’m not sure which one. We had naan, basmati rice, and complimentary dal sauce.

Between four of us, we shared two plates of assorted appetizers -- one would have been plenty. I had never had banana pakora before, so that was interesting to try. It looked like an orange biscuit, and inside was a big slice of banana, softened from the whole thing being cooked. I’m going to guess the soft dough was made out of yam and flour (or yam flour) because of the color and because it was slightly sweet.

By all means, don’t pass up Raga if you love northern Indian food but have had doubts about its popularity in the past.


142 Smith St., Brooklyn


Josh said...

As someone who lives by and has eaten at Raga before, I think the neighborhood's general ambivalence about the restaurant has more to do with the fact that there are several very good, very interesting restaurants within walking distance at very affordable prices.

To me, it's more that the food there is just standard fare (which is, don't get me wrong, pretty good) but I'd much rather check out a place where the chefs are experimenting and I might stumble across a new drink or ingredient or entree I've never experienced or didn't expect. I grew up eating Indian food regularly and this isn't really anything out of the ordinary.

Jill Duffy said...

So, you're saying that you really only like to eat out when it is an event, and when you can explore new stuff? That's a really good attitude to have, in my opinion.

At the same time, I'm surprised because the general perception of New Yorkers is that they often are the very opposite of that, relying on take-out and restaurant food more often than they cook at home. Read any news story about the NYC ban on transfats, and you'll hear people saying they are too busy to cook for themselves and have to rely on restaurants, which should be serving them more healthfully.

I definitely try to cook at home a lot, but I do have nearby go-to places for casual eating out or take-out, like one good pizzeria, one Thai food restaurant, one souvlaki place. I'm still looking for a good Indian spot in my neighborhood.

Josh said...

I mean I like to eat like, whenever I can, but try to limit myself. For the most part we try to go to new places almost every time, even if we do have some old standbys that we re-visit. One of the things that I love about the city is that there are so many restaurants and different kinds of food - there's always something new to try. I'm definitely a little biased against more straight forward restaurants - see my review of 'The Grocery' on Yelp.

I definitely agree that the perception of New Yorkers is all take-out, all the time and it's probably true. Brian and I really don't do take out too often, but we have a couple go-to places if we do. Mostly the delivery places are not great. I think that also has to do with so many affordable, good sit-down restaurants being in the neighborhood. A place near me makes a mean hamburger for delivery and I am a hamburger addict but that's probably only about once a month.

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