When one of the state's finest chefs – Hari Pulapaka of Cress Restaurant – backed out from any involvement with Raga (this after helping develop the Indian restaurant's menu), a sizable red flag went up for me. Pulapaka's official reason was that the timing wasn't right for him, but there was something fishy at Raga, and it wasn't the Chilean sea bass tikka. You see, Raga's menu lists a number of local food purveyors and suppliers, including Growing Synergy, a major distributor of foods grown at Central Florida farms such as Lake Meadow Naturals and Latitude Foods. When I spoke to Rebecca Reis-Miller, CEO of Growing Synergy, she confirmed that Raga was not a restaurant they supplied to. Raga's menu also lists Tomazin Farms and Wild Ocean Seafood Market, whose products find their way into area restaurants care of Local Roots Distribution. When I spoke to Local Roots founder Emily Rankin, she too confirmed that Raga was not a restaurant she had any dealings with. Now, the fact that Raga actually lists Growing Synergy on their menu is damning enough, but when you notice Raga's list of purveyors appears nearly identical to the list on the Cress website, it makes you shake your head.
My calls to Raga's executive chef Dominic Sarkar went unanswered, but let's set aside ethical quandaries for a moment and pretend that it's, say, 2003, when the word "locavore" was as alien a term as "Belieber." It's in this context that we'll deconstruct our meals at Raga, the fine dining establishment that took over Antonio's Ristorante's second-floor space on Sand Lake Road. The interior's former Tuscan villa ambience has been supplanted by whitewashed walls, candelabras and velour banquettes in a scene reminiscent of what one of my dining partners referred to as "the bedroom in Mariah Carey's MTV Cribs episode."
Menu-wise, there's plenty from which to choose, including the two starters recommended to us by our refined and proficient server: a Goan crab cake ($9) and lemongrass chicken kebabs ($10), an Indo-Chinese specialty that should probably be renamed "chicken kebabs" – the essence of lemongrass was all but absent. The substantial crust and heavy-handed seasoning on the crab cake didn't win any of us over either, but we recognized potential here and eagerly awaited our mains.
However, a poor execution of lamb boti kebabs ($20) – nicely charred, but just too desiccated – undermined the spot-on timing, delivery and presentation. The lamb, like the chicken appetizer, was served with soggy stir-fried veggies. Goat vindaloo ($20) was too tomatoey for a proper vindaloo. We ordered it hot, but the Goan dish came out milder than a Kashmir spring. The fried chili paneer ($16), on the other hand, had the kind of smack that would make Tiger Jeet Singh jealous. The rousing entree of fried curd cheese blended with various vegetables and fiery chilies made it the favorite of the group. In the bread category, Raga's naan ($3) is always worth ordering, but the lacha paratha ($4), whole-wheat bread stuffed with onions, came out very dry. From the dessert menu, the "Bombay River" ($7) amounted to a decent almond-pistachio rice pudding, while the Gujrat ka moti ($7), two warm cheese balls soaked in syrup, was really a pricy gulab jamun in disguise.
The dishes, as you've undoubtedly noticed, don't come cheap, so when Raga positions itself as a fine dining establishment promising to source locally and elevate Indian cuisine to a new level, then fails to follow through, it's more than a bit disappointing. In Raga, unfortunately, we get the same tune, different song.
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