Many years ago when I traded the big city for the quiet suburbs, I quickly learned I'd also have to venture to Route 22 for my household errands. Route 22, or the speedway as I call it, is my idea of white knuckle driving especially on the U-turns where speeding up to merge is no big deal to everyone on the road but me. So, on my way to Target or Costco, I'd drive by Raagini in Mountainside many times never really noticing as I clenched the wheel to my destination. It's actually a large, stately restaurant on Route 22 east near the AMC Loews movie theater and I am so glad I finally stopped in to have lunch.
Raagini Restaurant has been dishing up authentic Indian cuisine for 17 years. "The Culinary Mystique of Royal India" is their self-proclaimed motto and one step inside, you feel like you've stepped into another land, far from New Jersey, especially Route 22. The weekday lunch buffet, $11.95, from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. (closed Tuesdays), is a lavish presentation of traditional dishes, chutneys, spices and condiments and truly a feast for the eyes. This combined with the aroma from the tandoori oven makes it hard not to abandon all manners in favor of digging right in. Luckily, the efficient and friendly wait staff bring a warm basket of naan bread and hot chai tea right to your table, knowing that your embarking on a feast, not just lunch.
Chef Ahmed Liton began our feast by making an appetizer called Chaat Mix.
"It's a North Indian snack that begins with puffed rice or fried tortilla, then tossed with mint, tamarind, yogurt, chili powder, chat masala, roasted cumin, chopped tomatoes, cilantro and red onion," he said as he prepared the dish in front of us. It was an explosion of flavors, but light and not too filling. A perfect beginning to what came next.
The entrees stretched down the long buffet table all labeled with the traditional Indian name and its English translation. While the restaurant was packed with diners familiar with traditional Indian cuisine, Chef Liton was happy to give more background on the spices, heat level, even the origin of the dish. So, before digging in, the logical question for Chef Liton was, what do you like?
" My favorites are chicken tikka masala, lamb korma and palak paneer which is cubes of cheese cooked in fresh spinach," he said. "I was born in Bangladesh, then moved to England for 8 years. I learned to cook from my father, also a chef."
Many of the dishes are vegetarian such as daal bukhara, a lentil dish and mushroom palak. But, they are just as hearty as the chicken tikka masala and lamb korma, something that's hard to find if you're a vegetarian or not a big meat eater. Of course, this all comes with fragrant basmati rice and more naan bread to soak up all the delicious sauces.
Manager Domnic Rathos, is quick to point out that the lunch buffet changes daily.
"But our most popular dishes, lamb korma, and tandoori chicken are always available," he said. ""The tandoori, or charcoal clay oven, is showcased through a glass window so you can actually see the meat cooking."
Dessert, if you possibly have room, is a bit of a letdown. There were two selections, fried dough in honey and vermicelli pudding which I would gladly pass over for a mango lassi. It's a traditional Indian mango flavored yogurt drink served over ice and topped with rose water. Speaking of rose water, Raagini stays authentic right until you walk out the door. There are little dishes of tiny rose water candies and candy coated fennel seeds as a departing treat. A little taste of India as you floor it back onto Route 22.