Royal India is, as is the tradition in Milwaukee for great food, located in a strip-mall in a less than chic part of town. Overlooking what has to be the largest Wal-Mart in the Midwest, and the ruins of Southgate, Royal India isn't particularly pretty.
The parking is dodgy, and traffic on 27th Street is a nightmare. But often with great struggle comes great rewards, and this is most certainly the case with Royal India.
Enter, and you're greeted by an ample dining room, softly lit and relatively clean. The usual smells of garlic, ginger, coriander, and cumin immediate storm your sniffer.
Dinner starts with the traditional Papadum,
Accompanied by the equally traditional trifecta of chutneys:
Bright red onion, dark thin tamarind, and paste-like mint.
Now, we've always been fans of Tandoor's home-made chutneys, but never really big cheerleaders for their Papadum. They always seem too salty, and the (ajwain?) seed throughout just give it an odd flavor.
Thankfully, Royal India's Papadum are much less salty, and spare us the odd seed-age. Combined with the tasty mint, sweet and sour tamarind, or absolutely sublime onion chutney, they serve as a delicious warm-up for the rest of the meal.
Did I mention that the onion chutney was superb? Our friendly server pointed out that most of the non-Indian patrons tend to perfer the tamarind, as the sweet-sour combo is familiar to us. However, we gobbled down almost the entire dish of the onion chutney, and were left wondering what, exactly, made it so cotton-pickin' tasty?
First, the onions are crunchy. Score one for texture. Second, the nuclear red marinade they're in is a bit sweet, but intensely sour, a little hot, but also a bit spicy... it's the most odd, fantastic combination. Try the onion chutney on just about anything... it'll make the meal.
We splurged a little on the highly affordable appetizers, ordering Chicken Pakora:
Our helpful friendly server also brought us out each a cup of Masala Tea, aka Chai.
While Lauren ordered Chicken Makhani (aka Butter Chicken)
And I ordered Lamb Saag:
It should be noted that, despite having a (relatively) complicated order, involving multiple appetizers, breads, drinks, and entrées, the timing on all of our food was nearly perfect, neither cluttering up the table nor leaving us wondering when the next course was going to arrive.
Andy ordered his Vindaloo a Medium+ spice level, which our server told us was probably the upper limit for, er, pale Western European types. In retrospect, Andy says, he probably could have handled a full-fledged HOT, but was satisfied with a Medium+ nonetheless. Andy is kind of a man's man when it comes to spicing, through, so you kids at home don't feel bad about sticking to the mild stuff.
His Vindaloo was true to it's Portuguese/Goan roots: ultra-spicy, tomato, garlic and vinegar based gravy with chicken. This was in no way, shape or form just a manipulation of the house red curry; this was as true a Vindaloo as I've ever tasted. If spicy/sour is your thing, then Vindaloo is your dish.
However, if the intricacies and romance of Indian spicing are your true calling, then the Chicken Makhani might just be up your alley. The gravy is thick and rich, smacking of cream and butter, bright red with tomato, fragrant with garlic and spiced with a harmonious blend that never lets you forget it's Indian you're eating. The chicken tikka were tender and tasty and plentiful, and came together like a symphony with the curry.
My Lamb Saag was heaven. The creamed spinach was thick, thick, and even thicker yet. Realizing, of course, that creamed spinach curry isn't very photogenic, understand that the flavor belies the slightly unsavory sight of the dish.
India's love and respect for the dairy cow becomes readily apparent here: the Saag is a textbook outing of cream and butter, garlic, a little cumin, a little cardamom. Bits of red chili dot it, and my mild+ heat gave me just enough tongue-tingle to keep my interest. The lamb was beautifully cooked, tender and juicy, never tough, and never particularly lamb-y, if you catch my drift.
Combined with the fresh garlic naan (no picture, use your imagination), my Saag was a decadent treat, like licking the spoon after mixing a batch of brownies... something I'm keenly aware isn't healthy nor wise, but the sort of food-indulgence that one needs to engage in once in a while to keep from going completely off the deep end and eating an entire box of petit-fours. Which I did not do this Christmas. You can keep your accusatory stares and your tongue-clucking, thank you.
It bears repeating that our server was genuinely warm and helpful, talking and joking with us the entire time, even recommending better camera angles for the curry! He was quite proud of the food he was serving to us, taking the time to explain how everything in the kitchen, save the papadum, was home-made from scratch, and how he couldn't imagine using canned or pre-made anything.
I like it when my server is excited about the food I'm eating as I am.
We closed the meal with a little bowl of Gulab Jamun, lovely spheres of fresh cheese, deep fried and soaked in a rosewater syrup. Two of these sugary little suckers is plenty much, just a pleasant finish to a heavy and spicy meal.
I will always have a soft spot for Tandoor, but, as the old adage goes, you can never go home again. With Tandoor's new ownership comes a new menu and new flavors. We've been assured over and over that classic recipes haven't changed, yet on our last visit, it was all too obvious there are some subtle differences -- good, bad, or otherwise. As a break from tradition, Royal India satisfies with down-home Desi treats, the heavy curry comfort food that makes you want to take a long nap followed by an even longer night's sleep.
I've heard some folks complain that the service is slow at Royal India, or that things aren't kept as clean as they ought to. Honestly, we didn't see any of that on any of our visits (admission: this wasn't our first rodeo). Despite the dining room being a bit quiet on our visit (it being the day after Thanksgiving, and all), there was a lot of carry-out traffic, so the kitchen was still busy enough to show potential slow-downs to us dining-room folks.
We really enjoy Royal India, and we think it offers a nice change of pace from some of our other Indian standbys in the city. It's always good to have options, and we believe Royal India should be at the top of the list when you get the hankerin' for some curry...
It's quiet, intimate, and generic enough to be pretty much any kind of restaurant except German. Don't let the chairs stolen from a Greek family restaurant fool you, there is some Asha Bhosle playing from the overhead speakers. I'd say the only thing I really could dock the place for was the faulty dimmer which controlled the pendant lamps over the tables -- they'd blink high-low every couple of seconds, and pretty soon, I developed a pretty wicked eye-twitch.
We're firmly in the $10-$15 range for entrées, but the portions are fair, and the food quality is peerless. Appetizers are inexpensive and the options are plentiful
Quick and gabby, and not the least bit shy about recommendations. It's a pleasant change to have a server who is actively engaged with customers.
The Food: A-
Curries, executed essentially flawlessly, and consistently to boot. A few minor missteps in the samosas can be easily forgiven, I imagine samosa recipes are a lot like chili recipes: everyone thinks theirs is the best.
Royal India Restaurant
3400 S. 27th St.
Milwaukee, WI 53215