I'm not a big fan of Indian food. Well, let me rephrase that - I haven't been a big fan of Indian food. The first guy I worked for as an independent rep in the audio industry was a big fan of Indian cuisine and he took me to an Indian place in Kansas City a couple times. I just didn't care for it. It had been over 20 years since I'd eaten Indian food and I didn't miss it one bit.
I don't know what it was - the texture, the taste, the color - that turned me off on Indian food. But my Canadian colleagues all rave about Indian food. They've turned some of my American colleagues onto the food, as well. Canada has a number of outstanding Indian restaurants. Of course, outside of India, Great Britain has some excellent Indian restaurants. So, all my colleagues, as well as Dominic Baker from Focal, love Indian food.
My wife accidentally found herself in an Indian restaurant in the western suburbs of Chicago one time. She and a friend had been shopping and they saw a sign for the restaurant. She thought the sign said, "Italian food", when it said, "Indian food." They were too embarrassed to get up and leave, so my wife went with the flow. The waiter helped her through the menu and she loved it. She called me up and said, "Honey, we've GOT to come back to this place! I know you'd love it!"
My stomach suddenly got that same queasy feeling I'd gotten after eating Indian food some 20 years before.
As I was working our booth at the CEDIA Expo held in Atlanta recently, I ran into an old friend who works in the industry who lived in Atlanta. We got to talking about things and my colleague, Todd, came up and joined in the conversation. We somehow got to talking about restaurants and my Atlanta friend was telling us of some of his favorite restaurants in the Buckhead area. He mentioned an Indian restaurant by the name of Raja. He said, "My wife and I search out Indian restaurants to eat at. We even drove up to Washington D.C. one time because we'd read that Rasika was the best Indian in the U.S. And Rasika was great. But I have to tell you guys, Raja holds it own in comparison to Rasika."
Well, Todd just loves Indian food. He was then on a mission. He told my other colleagues about Raja. It turned out that everyone was up for it, including Dominic Baker, who fancies himself as an Indian food connoisseur. My boss and two of my colleagues, Ian and John, were scheduled to go to dinner with a bunch of industry magazine editors, so our plan was to find Raja and have dinner.
Raja was just down Peachtree Road from our hotel in a small strip center (see map). There were six of us and Todd thought we'd better make reservations. "If this place is as good as your buddy says it is, it's probably packed on a Saturday night," he reasoned.
When we pulled into the parking lot, there were only a couple cars parked in front. It featured a very non-descript front. Walking in we saw that it wasn't very elegant with basic chairs and tables throughout. It looked sort of tired and run down. Raja opened in 1979 and I'm guessing they've done nothing to update the place since. There was a large empty meat counter toward the back. It turned out that we really didn't need reservations as there were only two tables occupied. Dominic said, "Well, that's not a good sign." He turned to Todd and said, "Are you sure this is the place?"
He said, "Will's friend raved about this place. He said that it was one of the best Indian restaurants he's ever been to." We still decided to go in and give it a shot.
They put us in a sort of small room with a half wall overlooking the main dining area in the front of the restaurant. We were given menus, but I didn't have the faintest idea what to order. It was then when Dominic came up with the brilliant idea of ordering a little bit of everything and making it family style. Todd said to me, "I'll guide you through what you're eating. I've seen what you eat and what you like, so I'll help you out."
Raja was as authentic of an Indian restaurant as you could get. They had tandoori dishes, butter chicken, vindaloo and, of course, all types of curry dishes. They had Kingfisher beer, the most popular beer from India. Everyone, except for me and to an extent my colleague, Chris, were well-versed in Indian food. So between Todd, Dominic, Jon and Simon, they just started to order food.
When it all came out, they had to move a small table into the room to accommodate all the food they brought out. And we just started eating it.
Todd was across from me, Dominic was next to me. They kept pointing at different dishes and saying, "OK, try this. Now try this." The consensus at the table was that the food was authentic and it was outstanding.
Now, I couldn't tell you exactly what I was having. And since Raja has no Internet web site, I can't even go back and look up the menu. All I can tell you is this - it was good. Very good. I loved the taste sensations. There wasn't the weird colored and funky tasting sauces that I remember from my earlier experiences at the Kansas City Indian restaurant. I liked it a lot.
And so did Dominic Baker. Dominic, being the world travel that he is for Focal, has eaten in a number of restaurants in India. And being that he's a native of the U.K., well, there's Indian restaurants all over the place. Dominic declared Raja as "outstanding". He told the waiter, "I've eaten in some of the finest Indian restaurants in India and this is the most authentic Indian food I've ever had in North America."
I said, "Well, Dominic, this goes to show you that some of the best restaurants aren't the nicest looking inside and out."
He agreed with me. "Actually," he said, "that's true more often than not."
The waiter told us that when a number of English entertainers and dignitaries come to Atlanta they dine at Raja. It turns out that Elton John has a two-story condo just down the street from Raja (his partner is an Atlanta native). The waiter said, "Mr. Elton John and his partner come here quite a bit when they're in town. They usually come after we close. The Rolling Stones come here when they're in town. We've had Mr. Michael Caine and a number of other British stars that come here. They all know about us."
I've finally been exposed to great Indian food. I know there are a couple good ones in Chicago, including the one that Cindy went to out in Schaumburg. I still don't know what to get when I go there, but I'm sure I can get a waiter to guide me through the menu. But if Raja was as outstanding as my colleagues claimed it was, I'm afraid that I'll be disappointed in any other Indian restaurant I try.