Beef Kababs, Chicken Biryani, Prawn Curry
When I was fifteen and living in New Delhi with my parents, I'd often get off the schoolbus a few blocks before our street and walk home from there so I could pass by the local bakery. I'd pick up half a dozen piping-hot vegetable samosas, make half of them disappear, and arrive home with a cheery 'Hey Mom, Dad, look! I got us samosas -- one each!'
My first bite of Raaz Mahal's vegetable samosas inevitably brought back this memory, as fresh and sharp as it was yesterday (Hey, it's not been that long ago! Uh, yeah riiiight.). I guess another reason this memory got triggered was because our first visit to Raaz Mahal was at my dad's invitation, his treat for me on my birthday. The two of us have had a real weakness for Indian cuisine ever since that stint in Delhi, and as Raaz Mahal serves Punjabi food, the same North Indian food we got used to, we're really happy we've now got a restaurant like this in BF. A few days later, Cat and I visited again to interview the Arshad family, Raaz Mahal's owners, and of course to eat more samosas.
Vegetable Samosas and Potato Pakoras
Ordering for the family, I went for the tried and true appetizers: Vegetable Samosas, Onion and Potato Pakoras, and cheese-filled Aloo (Potato) Balls. We followed this up with the Chicken Dal, Chapatti bread to scoop up the dal with, Beef Kababs, Prawn Curry, and Chicken Biryani, and on our return visit, we tried the Goat Korma and Naan.
The great delight of Indian food, for me, is the way the complex blend of spices, the masalas, create a cascading explosion of flavors on the palate and the nose. This is exactly what we got with Raaz Mahal's food. The Samosas were crisp on the outside, soft and delicately spiced inside, and served with a sweet and tangy chutney sauce. The Pakoras were also crisp, really nicely done -- flavorful, not oily at all despite their being deep-fried -- and went great with the provided chili dip. The kids went bananas over the Aloo Balls, which were like potato croquettes filled with an herbed cottage cheese, and also served with chili dip.
Aloo Balls and Chicken Dal with Chapatti
I would've liked more lentils in the Chicken Dal, which was a lentil-and-chicken stew with curry spices. You scoop it up with torn pieces of Chapatti bread or Naan. The Beef Kababs and Prawn Curry came next, and disappeared very quickly! The kababs were delicately spiced, still moist inside (ground meat kababs dry easily, so this tells me the cook has a light hand on the grill), and served with a yogurt-mint-and-coriander-leaf sauce that surprisingly turned out to be the spiciest thing on the table, heat-wise. The Prawn Curry was buttery and had just the right amount of heat for the family -- strong enough that you could tell this was real Indian food, yet toned to the level that my sister and nieces could still taste everything. And the prawns were very fresh -- they had that sweet fresh taste. Because of the strong sauce of the kabab and the prawn curry, I'm afraid I wasn't able to really isolate the flavor of the biryani very well; it was very fragrant though, and yes, it was made with real basmati rice.
Goat Korma with Naan
I wish though that I'd thought to order the Korma while my whole family was there. That was a knockout! The yogurt-based sauce was very rich and creamy, nicely aromatic with the distinct yet far from overpowering mutton scent that tells you this isn't beef or pork. (Raaz Mahal is owned by a Pakistani family and serves Halal food). If I had to recommend a dish with which to break the common Pinoy aversion to goat or mutton, this korma would be high on the list, if not first. We chose to have this curry with Naan bread instead of rice, and I'm happy to report that Raaz Mahal's naan is the kind made with sesame seeds, giving them a nice added crunch.
I just wish the portions were bigger, a concern that manager Shala Arshad assures me will be dealt with when they come out with their new menu. Now that they know their market and are more confident that their food sells, Shala says, they're ready to upgrade the 'sampler' portions to something larger. Raaz Mahal is not a cheap place to eat, but given the complexity of their dishes, and the fact that all the spices they use must be imported from Pakistan, you know what you're buying.
Shala, her brother Ismail (Ish), the chef, and their father Muhammad sat with us as we were wolfing down the korma to tell us Raaz Mahal's story. The name Raaz Mahal means 'Secret Palace' or 'Mysterious Palace,' and fits right in with the tasteful, very Indian theme of the interiors. The Arshads own the Orientique furniture and antiques stores, and it shows. Raaz Mahal's interiors are painted in the gay hues of a bazaar in Rajasthan, and studded with plaques and statuettes done in traditional Indo-Persian motifs.
Nor are the Arshads newbies at the restaurant business, having opened one in Jakarta sixteen years ago, and another in Lahore. In fact, Shala says, the very reason for Raaz Mahal's existence is the love she and Ish have for their dad's cooking, which is based on traditional Muslim Punjabi recipes. But when he finally caved in to their insistent clamor for a restaurant here in Manila, it was Muhammad Arshad who chose Aguirre Avenue as their first location; a tribute to the burgeoning BF Homes food culture.
We finished our meal the same way we did on the previous visit, with a Strawberry Lassi. This sweet iced drink, with just the right amount of fresh strawberry and yogurt tartness, clears the palate beautifully after a meal rich in heady masalas and ghee; not surprisingly it's one of their bestsellers. They also offer Mango and Banana Lassi, and we also tried their Kulfi; an ice-cream like dessert made with milk steeped with intoxicatingly fragrant cardamom and topped with crushed pistachios. Dairy-based desserts are very important when you eat hot food like Indian or Malay, as the milk clears the burning sensation from the tongue. (Alcohol intensifies it though; which is why, spice freak that I am, I had my appetizers and main course with San Mig Lite!).
Ish Arshad says, though, that we've yet to try their real signature dish, the Beef Nihari. It's a rich beef curry that takes all of seven hours to cook, and I can just imagine how richly developed its flavors should be from that treatment. Looks like Cat and I have something to look forward to!
The Arshad Family
Tom Yum Goong
There's a certain level of expectation you build when a restaurant's owner tells you they delayed opening until they had all the necessary herbs growing in their garden. That electric feeling of anticipation was just what I got when we first talked to Thai Fusion Cafe's genial owner, Don Reyes. Thai cuisine's unique flavor is built on a selection of fresh, aromatic herbs, so when a restaurateur tells you they grow their own, you know they're honestly passionate about their food.
Cat and I finally got to try Thai Fusion Cafe, and I'm glad to report that my expectations were met. No, more than that -- they were totally bowled over! Put it this way: If ever a typhoon catches you in here and Aguirre floods, you can just imagine that you're in Bangkok eating at this secret locals' place beside a klong. That's how I felt after sampling four of Thai Fusion Cafe's dishes -- Tom Yum Goong, Red Chicken Curry, Pad Thai, and Bagoong Rice with Sweet Pork. There's an elusive quality that just tells you a real Thai hand is behind a Thai dish--the balance of flavors, the bright freshness of the herbs and ingredients, the respect with which they treat the food. Not surprisingly, Don's secret weapon is his wife Patty, a Thai he met while working abroad.
Bagoong Rice with Sweet Pork
Thai Fusion Cafe, Don says, was five whole years in development: research, recipe testing, business studies; and yes, making sure their backyard herb garden could supply enough for a restaurant. Despite, or perhaps because of all that research, Thai Fusion Cafe has a very down-to-earth approach that lets you know this is a Thai place, while making you feel very much at home.
The interior of their new location, along Aguirre beside Arti's Boutique (the former site of Chi's) and near the Rodeo Spa, is simply yet tastefully done, with an atrium for al fresco dining that should be very inviting on clear December evenings. Subtle clues to the identity of the chef can be found in the decor -- not the mass-produced tapestries or paintings you'll find in Bangkok's tourist bazaars, but modern prints of signature Thai things such as kickboxing, temples, and portraits of the Thai royal family.
Then there's the earnest tagline Don uses to market his food--not 'authentic Thai', but 'home-cooked Thai cuisine.' Don's a great believer in letting the customer discover the quality of Thai Fusion Cafe as a delightful surprise and gratifying experience, a refreshing approach to branding compared to the hard-sell variety. He's even humble enough to warn that they can't always have everything available, or always produce a dish the same way all the time. That's why he's in no hurry to branch out even with offers on hand; to him quality, not quantity, is paramount and comes first.
Thai Milk Tea (Jumbo size)
Don had already revealed his aces -- herb garden, Thai wife -- when he asked how spicy I wanted my food, with a mischievous twinkle. I asked for their normal level of heat, and immediately got insurance by ordering some Thai Milk Tea; I knew I'd need it! Sure enough, Cat and I got the works! Even at mild levels Cat's eyes were going wide as she ate her Bagoong Rice with Sweet Pork. Me, spice addict that I am, I think I was pounding the table with joy over my Penang Curry.
First impression: these fresh, bright flavors are really possible only when you've got fresh Thai herbs to use, and the cook really knows what she's doing! The rich coconut milk sauce was smooth, creamy, shot through with sparks of unique flavor from the Thai basil and other fresh herbs in it. As for the chili level, as expected, their normal is a cut above what you might expect from Malay or Indonesian; which in turn is a cut stronger than North Indian, what I'm most used to. That Thai Milk Tea was indispensable! I had the curry with white rice, as per Don's advice, so I could enjoy the sauce's flavor to its fullest.
Red Chicken Curry (Penang)
Same thing with the Tom Yum Goong, our usual benchmark for the quality of a Thai restaurant. It was a bright, complex interplay of herbs and contrasting flavors -- sweet, sour, salty, hot, savory -- and capped by the sweet light texture of very fresh prawns. Now, I'm allergic to crustaceans; the older the stock, the stronger its effect on me. My allergies remained quiet during and even after our meal, despite the soup having several split prawn heads in it for flavor. Conclusion: those prawns were still swimming a day or two ago. This guess was borne out by Don's assuring us that he's very meticulous about freshness, keeping only three days' worth of stock on hand at any time.
Cat was amazed by the complex balance of the soup, quite unlike the Tom Yums in her memory bank. Don speculates that may be because, left to their own devices, Filipino cooks tend to gravitate to the familiar flavor of sinigang and make their Tom Yum closer to our local soup by using less coconut milk and a much more conservative use of herbs. It was a gamble, he says, to introduce his wife's Tom Yum Goong because the Filipino market might already have been used to a modified, Filipinized version of Tom Yum. Me, I think that's a gamble Thai Fusion Cafe is going to win.
A note to the less adventurous -- Don stressed the importance of enjoying these dishes the Thai way. Many Thai offerings, such as the Bagoong Rice with Sweet Pork, have their flavors balanced in such a way that not eating everything on your plate will totally alter your experience. Under his guidance, Cat tossed the sweet stir-fried pork, scrambled egg, mango strips, chilis, chopped string beans and shallots into her rice, and immediately she tasted the difference. I tried it too, and yes, the flavors now came together like a harmonious gamelan symphony. Then we both grabbed our Milk Teas! I'm not sure if the chef was using Thai birdseye chilies or our siling labuyo, but a mere teaspoonful of the stuff is mighty powerful. One reason why the condiments are grouped apart on your plate, aside from the presentation's appeal, is so you can mix as much or as little of each as you want (although he says another reason for the compartmentalized presentation is that some customers may be allergic to some ingredients).
The Pad Thai arrived last, when we were already starting to feel full. That we left not even a single bean sprout, noodle or speck of ground peanut surviving on that plate should tell you how we found it! Don's recommended way of eating Pad Thai is to pair it with their Papaya Salad or with Satay, either chicken or pork. Pad Thai has become a favorite of some regulars' children, he says; maybe this is a good way to trick kids into eating their vegetables? It's also one totally non-spicy dish, so you've a fallback order if any of your friends or family are averse to chilies.
Thai Fusion Cafe was recommended to us by our friend Sheila Amora, owner of Funky Plum. She was so eager to have Good Living BF feature this restaurant, she even followed up a few days after texting us her recommendation. Now we know why. Had my mom been born Thai, I think this is how she'd have cooked. Honest, unpretentious, yet lovingly dedicated to quality. This is the real stuff!
You may also want to try their other bestsellers: Chicken Pandan, Thai Toast, (Fried) Glass Noodle Spring Rolls, Pork or Chicken Satay, and the Papaya Salad.