American Gymkhana makes the days of Raga an all-but-forgotten memory

American Gymkhana makes the days of Raga an all-but-forgotten memory
Rob Bartlett
AMERICAN GYMKHANA 7559 W. Sand Lake Road | 407-985-2900 | american | $$$$

We have restaurateur Rajesh Bhardwaj – founder of Michelin-starred Junoon in NYC – to thank for expunging the bitter taste left by Raga. At the behest of the owners of that doomed-to-fail curry house, Bhardwaj and his team reconceptualized the restaurant, got rid of the Mariah Carey boudoir scheme, and brought in a capable chef to bestow Dr. Phillips with a true Indian dining destination – American Gymkhana. "Gymkhana" is a reference to the clubs set up by the British Raj throughout India and elsewhere for the purposes of sport and socializing, which this restaurant appropriately reflects. Antique hunting rifles and the decorative trappings of a bygone era collide with a contemporary aesthetic and moody lighting, yielding an altogether pleasing character.

Servers – bow-tied and suspendered – also please (a few are even characters), but while there's much to be said for an agreeable disposition, there's more to be said for knowledge of the menu, correct pronunciation of dishes, and the kind of polish only experience can buy. So while there's steady improvement in that arena, the real performance takes place in the kitchen.

Let's face it, apart from embarrassingly lax execution and shady sourcing claims, there was hardly anything notable coming from Raga's kitchen, but with chef Aarthi Sampath at the helm, we're now in the enviable position of having some of the finest Indian cuisine in the Southeast at our fingertips. Those fingertips were put to good use tearing apart glistening garlic naan ($5) and flaky whole wheat paratha ($5) to scoop up redolent rogan josh ($22) – goat braised in Kashmiri chilies and clarified butter. Chef Sampath doesn't serve your average Indian fare – her dishes elevate Indian cookery to a standard unseen in these parts. Case in point: baby eggplants ($16) cooked in a thick sauce essenced with curry leaf, mustard and honey. It's as wickedly good as other vegetarian creations like dahi kebab ($12) – delicately fried yogurt and cheese croquettes – and adraki gobhi ($9), one of the best preparations of cauliflower I've sampled. Dishes you don't commonly see at Indian restaurants – tandoori lobster tail ($35) with spiced herb butter; roast duck ($27) in coconut cream sauce – are just as deftly prepared, the latter fully cooked (not medium-rare) in the Kerala style. Even common dishes like chicken tikka ($16) and lamb seekh kebab ($16) are a grade above others served in the city.

Many guests won't be pleased that rice, albeit rice laced with tangy zereshk, or barberries, is a $6 add-on, but sometimes great food comes at a price. You'll swoon over sweet endings like royal kulfi embellished with sweet basil seeds, rose-petal anglaise and a spiced crumble ($9), as well as carrot bread pudding ($9) with green-chili ice cream and masala streusel.

Pacing is spot-on, though we waited an inordinately long time for our mains on one visit. Seems a large party and a kitchen accident were the culprits but, hey, shit happens and if anyone deserves a little slack, it's this place. Besides, you don't come to AG for a quick meal; you want to savor every bite – and sip. The beverage program, anchored by Junoon's renowned mixologist, Hemant Pathak, and sommelier David Pennisi, is arguably one of the finest in the city. Pathak plans regular trips to Orlando, and watching him fashion a libation is as enjoyable as the libation itself.

As we beheld Pathak mesmerizingly clink and clank together a cocktail of freshly pressed pineapple juice, Angostura bitters, ginger beer and dark rum, I asked him the name of the concoction. "It's a ghazal, like the Indian love song." I looked at him for a moment, then guffawed, "Good thing you didn't call it a raga!"

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