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.
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.
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.
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.
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!