New Indian restaurant fuses modernity with authenticity.
I first saw pani puri in High Street Phoenix, a swanky mall in the Lower Parel district of Mumbai, India. It’s my husband’s favorite Indian street food: a fried hard, hollow semolina shell that reminded me of a potato chip—if that chip were round and hollow. Inside this puri is a thin layer of mashed potato, chickpea and sev (Bengal gram flour). You crack the top of the shell to make a tiny hole, shove in the potato, sev and then pour into it a small glass of pani—Hindi for water. It’s a green spicy mix of water. The mélange of crunch, soft potato, crisp sev and pani is delectable.
But the dish in front of me at Raag Progressive Indian Cuisine would make that pani puri vendor in Mumbai shake his head in disbelief and perhaps a bit of awe at the sheer audacity of taking this Indian street food staple and kicking it up by so many notches.
Raag’s take on pani puri is jal tarang—Hindi for colored water. There are five shot glasses of different pani: apple, cranberry and other flavors. In the center was the authentic green pani. Smoke emanated out of the dried ice to add to the colorful effect. That mix of the traditional mixed with continental made me light up in glee. All that American “stuff” fused in with Indian traditional foods is adventurous and a must-try. Jal tarang is not difficult to assemble. On top of each shot glass is the puri, hole already punched in the top, sali around the opening and potato at the bottom inside the puri. All you have to do is pick up your shot glass and pour in as much pani as you want.
This twist on this classic is the brainchild of Romila Ramamurthy, Raag’s executive chef.
“Giving it a modern twist and keeping the authenticity is the core thought behind the food we are serving here,” Ramamurthy says. “It has to be authentic, yet it has to be modern. Because normally when people talk about fusion cuisine, they take few ingredients from here and few ingredients from the other side but the taste does not balance. We are doing our best using the modern techniques and ingredients but keeping our base authentic.”
Raag’s menu is a collaboration between Ramamurthy and Ajay Chopra, a celebrity Indian chef.
“Ajay Chopra and myself, we have communicated a lot with getting this thing rolled out. Few ideas were his. Few ideas were mine. We combined it together and we plated it out,” Ramamurthy says.
An example of this collaboration is the Nihari Lamb Shank. “It’s a sous vide procedure that we do and it’s cooked almost 12 hours in a sous vide machine,” she says. “That was my modern twist to it with the flavorings into it. The gravy base was from Ajay Chopra. Together we came up with the khichdi, a wholesome multi-grain combination.”
While Chopra is famous for being the host of MasterChef India, Ramamurthy herself is an accomplished chef with more than 20 years of experience. She trained in the experimental kitchens of one of the world’s most famous and best restaurants with three Michelin stars: El Bulli in Spain. That experience taught her to trust in her creativity. It shows in the plating of her Lahsooni Broccoli, a head of broccoli that is sliced in half and roasted and artfully arranged in the center of a circular platter to look like a tree. Instead of a pot of dipping sauce, molecular gastrinomical gels of different colors and flavors are dotted around the tree. The effect is a tree of life, spreading its saplings. It is almost too pretty to eat.
“That’s one of my creations. It comes out spontaneous to me,” Ramamurthy says. “It’s just a vision. It comes in front of my eyes and I do the plating accordingly.”
Her other creative streak is her use of gold dust powder in the Kundan Kaliyan.
“Having gold dehydrated and using it as a dust is not commonly heard of,” Ramamurthy says with pride. “I’ve played with a lot of food techniques in my career. During my learning sessions in Spain, there’s a lot of techniques and ideas I’ve gained accordingly. Things randomly come out and I execute them. “
Finding Ramamurthy was a stroke of luck, says Raag co-owner Vamsi Kolla. Kolla and co-owners Gopinath Kakarla, Giridhar Komareddi and Ravindra Molokaballi already have a successful restaurant in Eden Prairie called India Spice House.
“We have a pretty solid Indian customer base,” Kolla says. “Everybody kept telling us, ‘You have to open a new restaurant.’ We said if we do it, we have to do it the fine dining way and not the regular way that other Indian restaurants are doing it in the Twin Cities. So we chose the concept of showing and presenting India in a modern way.”
In addition to the restaurant’s progressive cooking techniques and artistic presentation of dishes, there is a luxurious, modern environment. The first way to show modernity was to throw the typical Indian decoration manual out the window. They hired the same interior decorator behind Coalition and Crave, Kara Karpenske of Kamarron Design. Gone are the cliché décor of tapestries, idols and bright reds, oranges and yellows.
“The first thing you see is the ambiance,” Ramamurthy says. “It’s not the typical Indian restaurant where you would find the Taj Mahal photo.”
Instead, your eyes will feast upon sleek clean lines, blue modern waves mixed in with crisp white and gray tones and contemporary furniture.
Raag also channels modernity in its cocktail menu with drinks as beautiful and breathtaking as those found at Colita. Bartender Michael Amirtharaj takes an innovative approach to traditional cocktails and gives them an Indian twist. The bloody Baarah is his personal favorite, a play on words for the bloody Mary. Baarah is the number 12 in Hindi and it signifies the number of ingredients in the drink. The Kerala Spice Trail is Raag’s take on an old fashioned. This Instagrammable drink arrives at your table smoking with dry ice. It has cinnamon, and house-made chili peppercorn mint syrup.
But if that sounds too adventurous, Ramamurthy wants people to know the food isn’t spicy.
“Our food is not extremely high in spices or pungency or extremely bold according to the Indian taste,” she says. “It’s mild, mellow. It can be created spicier if you like but it is made for a general public that everybody can enjoy it at all given times. We have things for children, for teens, for elderly people. Raag is just starting and sky’s the limit I believe. We want people to know us and come give us a try.”