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The cooking at Radhika Modern Indian has long been a way station on the path to what’s emerged as what might be described as a Fusion Californian Pan-Indian Cuisine.
It’s the sort of food they’re serving at a new hot spot on the northside of Long Beach called Cali Chilli, which proudly describes itself as an “unauthentic Indian restaurant,” where Michelin chef Manjunath Mural serves a West Coast version of the chow he created nearly a decade ago at his Song of India restaurant in Singapore.
He proudly proclaims that for most, “It’s not real Indian food if it isn’t cheap and doesn’t have some sort of chicken tikka on the menu.” By contrast, he has a quesadilla with Indian flavors, along with nachos and crispy chicken wings. And yes, he does offer chicken tikka because, well, you just gotta.
For well more than a decade, Radhika Modern Indian has offered a style of cooking that comes closer to the traditional cuisine that Mural rails against. But a fine job has been offering fresh variations on the theme — as in the case of the baby-back ribs with stir-fried veggies, the Pondicherry-style seafood paella with date-banana raita, the shrimp ceviche, and the Manchurian tandoori paneer. It’s not as quirky as the food at Cali Chilli, but dishes awash with twists and turns nonetheless.
Expect twists and turns from a restaurant which seems to have always been with us here in the San Gabriel Valley, in a variety of locations. If memory serves me right, Radhika began in an Alhambra strip mall, then moved to Shopper’s Lane, just off Lake Street in Pasadena, and then popped up on Raymond Avenue in Old Pasadena, before disappearing for a while. Or at least, I think they disappeared.
But what I do know is that this admirably upscale Indian concept can be found on Mission Street in South Pasadena, one of the sweetest dining and shopping streets in the San Gabriel Valley — a fine destination for dishes both classic and “modern.” This is some of the edgiest Indian cooking this side of Cali Chilli.
It’s also one of the few Indian restaurants with outdoor dining. On a warm autumn evening, that maligned chicken tikka masala tastes better than ever. At prices that are, if not cheap, at least reasonable for the portions
At Radhika, the cuisine stretches in multiple directions. On the one hand, there’s a use of ingredients not often found on standard-issue menus. On the other hand, there’s the use of those ingredients in dishes that are undeniably influenced by Southern California.
Consider, for instance, the Punjabi tacos — a dish that would probably cause some confusion in the Punjab. It consists of a pair of corn taco shells, packed with dark meat chicken (or lamb), pickled onions and avocado sauce. It could be sold from the Kogi Food Truck, and no one would be surprised by its appearance. But it’s definitely not what we’re used to in the world of generic sub-continent cooking.
Neither is the shrimp ceviche, which doesn’t even pretend to sound Indian. And yet, flavored with a salsa made of mango, onion and mint salsa, it’s also definitely not Mexican. And some of the culinary variants are almost impossible to parse. What is the provenance, for instance, of the beer-battered chicken pakora, chicken dumplings flavored with a Sriracha aioli, or the panfried scallops with squash and mint-coconut broth. Also, for that matter, the salmon salad with fruits and walnuts.
The standard cheese found in Indian cooking is paneer. But at Radhika, paneer is joined on the plate by tomato yogurt sauce and goat cheese. There’s goat cheese as well in the samosas. And the tempuraed vegetables (a Japanese treatment) come with a sweet potato sauce? The palate reels, but in a good way.
Running on a parallel track are the traditional dishes, well-made, and reliably good — as they so often are. There’s tasty naan — plain, garlic, basil, rosemary and onion flavored. There’s a bread basket filled with clay oven delights. There’s a chicken tikka masala that’s hard to resist, and so well spiced that the notion that it was invented in Glasgow rather than Mumbai or Kolkata seems inexplicable. They just don’t cook like this in Glasgow, never have.
The tandoori chicken, half or whole, is always a crowd-pleaser — tender and reddened to the point where you think it’s going to glow if the lights go out. I’m pretty sure the super spicy vindaloo dishes — chicken and lamb — really do glow in the dark. On the other hand, is there a dish better at cooling an overheated mouth than the “dry fruit banana chicken korma” — chicken cooked with bananas and dried fruit, and served with naan bread dappled with chiles, just to give it a bit more edge.
There’s a constant flow of takeout orders emerging from the kitchen — this is food that travels well. But it just never looks quite as good at home as it does emerging from the kitchen, plated with care, arranged with veggies and herbs.
There is, of course, good Indian beer to wash it all down. And more wines than are usual. Though as ever, this strikes me as more beer food than wine food — no matter how edgy and multi-ethnic it may be.
Merrill Shindler is a Los Angeles-based freelance dining critic. Email mreats@aol.com.
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