Friday, March 24, 2006

East Village Indo-Fusion Falls Short, or Raga Sucks

One of the reasons I never wanted to be a restaurant reviewer is because you can’t just come right out and say a place sucks. You have to euphemize: it falls short, it misses the mark, it disappoints. At first I was disappointed by my meal at Raga, but as I thought about it over several days I realized it sucked.

I do a lot of serious restauranting this time of the year, since my birthday is in March. I have an ongoing pact with friends–we don’t trade birthday gifts, we take each other out to dinner. So in March and April I get taken out a bunch of times, and over the course of the year I reciprocate. The restaurants are sometimes old favorites, and sometimes new places or places we’ve been meaning to try but never got around to. Raga was one of the latter. I had been both interested and wary since it first opened about eight years ago. The menu is basically French or new American with an Indian spin. It made a bit of a splash for being a moderately upscale restaurant borrowing inspiration from India just a block east of all the abominable curry holes of 6th street. It garnered enthusiastic reviews both from the media and front-line users like the Zagat’s brigade. Its current reality is so forgettable that I wondered whether something had changed drastically, or if the good reviews all came from a bunch of ninnies who are easily impressed by seemingly daring hybrids, regardless of whether or not they actually work. A little research reveals that at some point along the way the original chef, Geetika Khanna, an Indian who had studied at the French Culinary Institute, went into private catering and was replaced by Lee Farrington, who also studied at the French Culinary Institute. By the time I dined there, however, Farrington too was gone.*

Granted, I was a tough sell. I feel about “fusion cuisine” roughly the way Goering felt about “culture,” except that I don’t own a revolver. Eurasian fusion restaurants became fashionable maybe twenty or so years ago, and what should have been a passing fad refuses to die. I think fusion restaurants are really more about fashion than food, aimed at trendies looking for the newest thing to eat while being seen eating the newest thing, outlets for “artistically inclined” chefs and restaurateurs more interested in making a “bold statement” than good food. The result is usually a mediocre freak cuisine, neither good European nor good Asian food. Among the most forgettable meals of my life were one at Jean-Georges’ Vong, a fusion of French and Thai, and another at an upscale midtown Indo-European place whose name I can’t remember and which boasted Ismail Merchant as a “design consultant.”

On the other hand, I must admit that some of the world’s great cuisines are fusion cuisines. They’re what I’d call “naturally occurring” fusions–though you could argue that the colonialism that is responsible for much of the world’s most interesting food shouldn’t be called “natural.” One of the great fusion cuisines is Macanese–the baseline Chinese ingredients of Macau’s natives augmented by influences and dishes from throughout the Portuguese colonial world. I have never seen a Macanese restaurant outside of Macau, and as I write this I’m getting a craving for African chicken. Malaysian is another great fusion cuisine, mixing native Malay dishes and ingredients with contributions from Chinese and Indian immigrants as well as influences from Thailand to the north. Stay tuned for a piece on Malaysian cuisine.

But back to Raga. I haven’t described the food yet. The first thing we were served was something they called naan, but is best described as dry, tasteless, cardboard-like strips reminiscent of overly toasted packaged pita bread. Bad bread is a bad sign. There were three of us, and we shared two appetizers. One of them was probably the best thing we tried, though it was nothing to turn cartwheels over. It was a pan-seared sea scallop dish, served over what they called “blinis.” As with all the food, the menu’s description made it sound more interesting than it was. I’m especially pissed off about the blini thing. There were pancakes of some sort at the bottom, and they weren’t bad, but they sure as hell weren’t blinis. A blini is a particular thing, and you can’t go calling any pancake a blini just because it sounds good on a menu. This happens a lot–trendy restaurant menus use traditional food terms to describe components of their dishes that bear only the most distant resemblance to those traditional food items. Who do they think they’re fooling? Beneath the scallops were dense little pancakes that had little to do with the thin, light Russian pancake whose name they appropriated. Our other appetizer was crab cakes. Once again, I can’t remember the description that made them appear to be crab cakes with a difference. I’m sure they mentioned a bunch of spices, but the one I noticed most was salt. I’ll trust them that there was crab in the crab cakes, but I couldn’t taste it. They were dry, salty lumps that in a blind taste test might barely beat out Mrs. Paul’s fish cakes. True to form for this kind of place, though, the crab cakes were surrounded by "artistic" swirls of sauce (avocado, if I remember correctly) and spice accents that were most likely described on the menu. To add insult to injury, the offending crab cakes had to be endured by a native of Baltimore, one of my dinner companions.

the offending crab cake

Main courses were par for the course. I had considered ordering the most out-on-a-limb entree, the wild boar rendang, but I had just eaten an authentic Malay beef rendang for lunch the day before. Instead I had the breast of duck, which was served sliced, in the French style, with a forgettable balsamic sauce–but I can’t remember if the menu specified the balsamic sauce since it surprised me. The menu did, however, specify Sichuan peppercorns, but like many other promised flavors they were nowhere to be found. Accompaniments were salad greens and triangles of overly salty grilled polenta. One friend’s salmon skewers would have been just fine if we were in a Greek diner. My other dining associate ordered the “vegetarian delight,” which was essentially a second-rate south Indian curry, but nonetheless the best (and cheapest) of the three entrees. For dessert we shared an overly sweet fruit cobbler with pedestrian vanilla ice cream. I didn’t order the dessert. If I had, I might have gone for the lemongrass creme brulee, if only to find out whether it tastes as silly as it sounds.

This meal at Raga was, in its way, more offensive than a swillfest at one of the nearby Indian places. Dropping fifteen bucks on a bad Bangladeshi meal seems rather benign compared to paying three or four times that for such undistinguished, pretentious food.

Still, I learned recently that you can’t dismiss all fusion cuisine out of hand, as I was quite pleased by the food at Saffron, in Baltimore. I had scoped out Saffron on a menu-browsing walk during a prior trip to Baltimore, but my time was limited and I already had a dinner date with a bevy of crabs and a mallet. The next time I got to Baltimore I made sure to give Saffron a try. The restaurant is on a tony strip of North Charles Street. Its menu is so audacious that I figured the food would be either really good or really bad. I feared really bad, but I was intrigued enough to hope for really good. It was very good. Granted the menu is more than a bit precious, with sections titled “Liquid Spice” (soups), “Green Dreams” (salads), “Wings” (poultry), etc. The descriptions of the dishes are pretty wild: Curried Spinach Gratin, Roasted Garlic and Pickled Lotus Root; Foie Gras and Brown Lentils, Cardamom Truffle Confit; Sandalwood Smoked Quails Moroccan Saffron Flavored Couscous; Stuffed Acorn Squash with Beef Cubes, Indian Cheese and Olives in Riesling Almond Sauce. I ordered the Crab Triangle Pastry with Cumin Scented Tomato Coulis for a starter because a New Yorker in Baltimore for a day must eat crab. It was pretty good, but my main course was spectacular: Tandoor Smoked Baby Lamb Racks - Spiced Blackberry, Ginger. Baby rack of lamb is way at the top of my meat pantheon. These had a sticky blackberry-ginger glaze which along with the smokiness gave it some of the earthiness of bbq ribs without sacrificing the essential lamb flavor. In short, it worked. The owners and staff at Saffron are all Indian, and I believe it grew out of a more traditional Indian restaurant. As over-the-top as some of the dishes are, they seem to be grounded in Indian cuisine, and maybe for me that’s a better recipe than adding Indian accoutrements to European cuisine.

* Postscript: I don't know who was responsible for the kitchen when I visited Raga, but it was apparently on its last legs, as the restaurant closed several months later.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

My b'day is also in March and that means alot of eating out-as we get older the birhday's need to last for weeks to soften the blow. Too bad about your meal sounds dreadful-my winner was The Slanted Door in San Francisco-tasty with a great lime, ginger vodka concoction.Have a great month!

6:42 PM  
Blogger Peter Cherches said...

Thanks for the birthday wishes, and same to you. The Slanted Door is indeed good, but my favorite S.F. Vietnamese (more traditional Viet than Slanted Door) is Pagolac, in the "Little Saigon" part of the tenderloin, on Larkin near Ellis.

10:02 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Fortunately I was no longer the Chef at Raga in 2006, as I moved to Maine in the summer of 2004....I would appreciate if you would remove your negative post in association of my name. My credentials are as valid as my culianry knowledge.

Chef Lee Farrington

10:20 PM  
Blogger Peter Cherches said...

Lee, my pleasure to correct the record and sorry for the misunderstanding, which was based on out-of-date information on the website.

8:53 AM  

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