Restaurant Review: The Diversity of Indian Cuisine Is at RaaSa in Elmsford

|by Steve Radcliffe; The New York Times|

In 1998, when Peter Beck was the chef at the Indian restaurant Chola in Manhattan, Ruth Reichl, then The New York Times’s restaurant critic, regarded it highly enough to give it two stars.

In 2010, when Mr. Beck was the chef at Tamarind Tribeca, the Times critic Sam Sifton gave that restaurant two stars.

This column does not use that rating system, but the Very Good for RaaSa in Elmsford, where Mr. Beck is now the chef, is undoubtedly two-star territory.

“One of the most appealing aspects of Chola is the sheer breadth of the menu, which allows you to take an edible tour of India,” Ms. Reichl wrote in her review, and Mr. Beck has carried that concept to many of his kitchens (he also was the chef at Benares in Midtown Manhattan, whose website still credits him with its menu).

At RaaSa, he said on the phone after my visits, “I’m trying to bring regional food from every state so that people know there is another side to Indian cuisine” beyond the more familiar dishes from the northern part of the country.

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Mr. Beck is particularly interested in seafood. “I try to promote the coastal regions” of India, he said.

So let’s start there, with perfectly seared kalonji scallops, their natural sweetness balanced by a tomato chutney made with peppery onion seeds (the kalonji of the title). Or begin with one of Mr. Beck’s signature dishes, Chennai jhinga, with flavorful shrimp atop a pancake made with rice and lentils and dressed in a sauce of coconut and avocado that somehow manages to be simultaneously light and rich. (There’s no reason I can think of not to order both.)

For a seafood entrée, Mr. Beck marinates branzino and cooks it on medium heat on a griddle called a tawa, which gives the fish a crisp exterior while keeping it moist; he serves it with a lively tangle of peppers and onions along with haricots verts and roasted potatoes. It’s a terrific plate of food.

There’s more of that good shrimp in one of the biryanis served here (prepared in the traditional Hyderabadi way, with a pot-pie-like dome of pastry over the fragrant rice), and on a substantial mixed tandoor plate that also features salmon, lamb sausages, and chicken (boneless pieces of which had a mealy texture usually attributable to too much time in a marinade).

Mr. Beck also emphasizes vegetarian dishes at RaaSa, including his bright version of lasoni gobi (cauliflower florets in a bustling sauce) and ambiya tikki, the tasty cakes of roasted beets and mango that have been an essential entry on a number of his menus (the recipe is his creation). The sauce for the former includes ginger, garlic, green chiles, roasted cumin powder and, for a hit of sourness, a little vinegar; the latter is seasoned with coriander, ginger, garlic and ajwain, a sharp counterpoint to the lush fruit.

Mr. Beck is a spice maestro who seems to know exactly when to turn up the heat. Case in point: the eggplant dish from Hyderabad called baghara baigan, the sauce for which includes peanuts, fenugreek seeds, sesame — so far, so good — and, playing the role of an accelerant, roasted whole red chiles.

A friend I was dining with took several bites and appreciatively proclaimed, “This is another level.” (I believe the technical term would be: Smokin’!)

Other enjoyable entrees are not as bold, though none I had were shy: the moderately hot lamb dish aatu kulambu, in a gravy with red chiles; the korma lazeez, chicken in a sauce with saffron and crunchy cashews; and a delicious version of the Mangalorean dish kori gassi, buttery chicken cooked with coconut, curry leaves and star anise.

This incarnation of RaaSa opened in March; Priya Kapoor-Salian and her husband Ashok Salian are the owners. She grew up in Chappaqua; he grew up in a restaurant family in India. They met Mr. Beck when all three worked at Tamarind Tribeca. Much of the remodeling of a building that housed a restaurant called Malabar Hill was done before Ms. Kapoor-Salian and Mr. Salian took over; they redid the chairs and got rid of the wallpaper save for the stuff that looks like bookshelves (and which could be the library if you want to play an outsize edition of Clue).

It’s a comfortable room with well-spaced tables and plenty of light from large windows (though it should be said that service does not yet match the quality of the food — it’s friendly but jumbled).

There’s roster of pleasant wines by the glass, beers on tap and, to start a meal, a very good ginger-lime martini (the cocktail list is the work of Mr. Salian).

To end, there are Mr. Beck’s takes on traditional Indian desserts, including the deeply sweet yogurt dish called shrikhand. He also turns out a delightful disc of kubani double mitha, the Hyderabadi apricot bread pudding, here served with whipped cream and dabs of apricot jam.

It’s nothing really complicated, but after a meal of memorably vivid flavors, it’s the right kind of cool.

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