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Restaurant Tours: the reincarnation of Raj Darbar

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The food in India varies vastly from one region to another, but what most Americans are accustomed to eating in restaurants is north Indian, which was influenced by the high-living Moguls (the refined word for the marauding Mongol hordes who conquered Delhi in the 16th century and made it the seat of their empire).

The Moguls had carved marble canals running through their palace bedrooms and royal chefs whose specialties included a pilaf made of egg yolks mixed with gold and silver tissue and stuffed into a chicken's esophagus, which was then tied at regular intervals like a strand of beads, boiled, and cut open to reveal edible "pearls."

The food at Raj Darbar, "the Royal Court," is more prosaic, but definitely Mogul-influenced. Purists may insist it is to true Indian regional cuisine what chop suey is to China, but until the real thing arrives I'll happily make do with their skillfully prepared tandooris, vindaloos, and two of my favorite appetizers, samosas and pakoras.

Raj Darbar offers a mouth-watering mixed platter ($7.25) of the crisp, deep-fried, triangular cones of dough called samosas, stuffed with lean ground beef and peas and spiced with onions, garlic, ginger, peppercorns, coriander, cumin, and turmeric; tofu and chicken pakoras (fritters); and bhajia, fresh-cut carrots, bell peppers, and potatoes deep-fried in a tempuralike seasoned chick-pea batter. The sauces are a fresh mint chutney that gets its heat from cilantro and jalapeno peppers and a mild sweet-and-sour banana and tamarind chutney.

Main courses are uniformly excellent: juicy, well-seasoned tandoori chicken ($7.95), marinated in yogurt, garlic, onions, lemon juice, and freshly ground herbs and spices, then baked in a hot clay oven; Shahjahani biryani ($10.95), a festive Mogul dish served at weddings, prepared with chicken marinated in a paste of ginger, garlic, onions, yogurt, lemon juice, and spices, then steamed with green peas and saffron-flavored rice, and garnished with raisins and cashews; and lamb (in India they use goat) vindaloo ($9.95) in a mildly spicy sweet-and-sour, tamarind-based sauce.

There are more than one hundred million vegetarians in India. The most fanatic, the orthodox Jains, wear masks over their noses and mouths so they won't accidentally inhale a tiny life-form. Raj Darbar offers several vegetarian choices, including a very good palak paneer ($7.95), spinach and homemade cheese in a delicious curry sauce. The word "curry" was coined by the British, derived from the Tamil kari, "sauce." At home Indians don't use the term at all, nor do they use commercial curry powders, which are blends of several spices, including coriander, cumin, red peppers, turmeric, and fenugreek. They make their own fresh blends called masalas.

They're picky about their rice too. All entrees at Raj Darbar are served with a pilaf of basmati rice (grown in the foothills of the Himalayas) and a side dish of sauteed potatoes and peas enlivened with cumin and turmeric or potatoes and cumin seeds seasoned with anchoor, mango powder. This doesn't mean you shouldn't order one of their marvelous special breads: tandoori roti ($2.00), a large, tear-shaped whole-wheat bread baked on the walls of a tandoor; naan ($2.00), the white-flour version; or onion culcha ($2.50), naan stuffed with seasoned onions. Other nice accompaniments are kotchumber ($2.25), a cumin- and cilantro-charged salad of chopped tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, and green peppers; and raita ($2.25), a cooling mix of cucumbers and tomatoes with yogurt. Not that you'll need cooling off. All except the tandoori dishes are cooked to order and can be prepared mild, medium, or extra hot.

Desserts are very good here. The kulfi ($2.50), homemade milk ice cream with pistachio, tastes like cheesecake ice cream. Homemade mango ice cream ($2.50) and kheer ($2.95), a creamy rice pudding with pistachio, are also delectable.

Raj Darbar, which opened two years ago, has been under new management since last May, when Kamal Chhabria and Navdeep Walia took over. Walia was formerly at the pricey Klay Oven on Orleans, as was chef Badrudin Lakhani. Service is friendly, prompt, and knowledgeable. The cuisine may be mostly Mogul, but the decor is anything but elaborate. In fact, it's meager, and mostly maroon--maroon banquettes and carpet. Oh, the walls are white, and so are the tablecloths and napkins. You were maybe expecting a peacock throne on Clark Street?

Raj Darbar, 2350 N. Clark, is open seven days a week. Lunch is served from 11:30 to 2:30 daily, dinner from 5 to 10 Sunday through Thursday and from 5 to 11 Friday and Saturday. Carry out and delivery are available. For more information call 348-1010.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Steven D. Arazmus.

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