Worth the wait
The cooking at South Pasadena’s Radhika Modern Indian is impossible to beat
By Erica Wayne 02/20/2014
We've been frequenting Radhika as long as I can remember, following it from venue to venue. Our first wonderful meal was in its original location in Alhambra, which opened in the mid-’90s. Later (and for at least a decade), we mostly went to Shoppers Lane in Pasadena and briefly to a second site on North Raymond Avenue. Since 2010, Radhika has called Mission Street in South Pasadena its home.
The exterior of the brick-faced building is lined with attractive green awnings and a row of tables for outdoor dining. Its interior is lovely, with deep turquoise walls, dark wood furniture and a terracotta cement floor. The low-lit, high-volume restaurant is L-shaped, divided into a formal dining area facing Mission Street and a rather exotic lounge at the west end.
My only complaint is the proximity of the entry to the kitchen access. Waiting for seating on a busy evening (as most are) is like standing on a freeway at rush hour, constantly avoiding an onslaught of servers with laden trays as well as new arrivals trying to make their way to the hostess. It’s not pleasant, but the final result is worth the discomfort.
Radhika’s cooking is almost impossible to beat. And the prices are quite reasonable, with most appetizers $8 to $10, and most entrees $13 to $16. Of course, there’s a single exception and, alas, one to which I’m addicted. Bada kabab, a rosemary and ginger infused rack of New Zealand lamb roasted to perfection on mesquite charcoal will set you back $29. But I’d stack it up against any lamb served at ritzy continental places at higher cost.
Many of Radhika’s best recipes have been retained from earlier menus. We’ve enjoyed their tender lamb shank ($16) for years, slow-cooked with asfoetida, fennel, dry ginger, mustard seed and Kashmiri chilies in a yogurt-based sauce — an Indian osso buco variant. Ditto for the fabulous charred baby back ribs marinated in coconut milk, cumin, coriander, cardamon and mango chutney ($14).
Radhika’s paella ($14) is another oldie but goodie: basmati rice cooked with seafood, mint curry leaves, garlic, ginger, chilies, red onions and tomatoes. And the luscious chicken breast hyderabadi (a mild fennel and dried fenugreek-spiced Pakistani curry, with apricots and a topping of crushed crispy red potatoes - $13) has been on offer as long as I can remember.
Vindaloo (chicken or lamb - $14) is my acid test for any Indian restaurant. The ginger, garlic and vinegar had better make their presence known over and above the fragrant and complex spice mixture which serves as the base flavoring for meat, tomato, onion and potato. Most of all, however, the chili needs to be (as Radhika’s menu puts it) “fiery”; Radhika’s passes with flying colors.
There’s also my “color” test. Unfortunately, many cooks use similar spice blends in much of their menu. When the bhartha (eggplant), rogan josh (Kashmiri lamb curry) and vindaloo all are dark red, it’s a warning that the flavors probably won’t be all that distinctive. A tableful of Radhika’s food (all artfully garnished and nestled into white geometric ceramics) is a rainbow of contrasting hues: tan, mustard yellow, muted peach, tangerine, emerald, brilliant orange, Chinese red and deep maroon.
Radhika’s soubriquet “Modern Indian” aptly describes their more innovative creations. Samosas ($6) are stuffed not only with the expected potatoes and peas but with goat cheese. Bhune scallops ($8) are pan-fried, then dropped into a pool of mint-coconut broth swimming with zucchini chunks and ajwain seeds. We always finish the tender mollusks but doggie-bag the leftover broth to pour over rice at home.
Two fusion inventions are pujabi tacos ($8), with chicken, pickled onions and avocado raita (a yogurt-based sauce), and shrimp ceviche tostada ($10), with mango, onion and mint salsa. Moilee ($15), a fish stew common in south India, is concocted here with New Zealand green mussels, lots of fresh garlic, mushrooms, olive oil, herbs and dry white wine. If it weren’t for the Madras curry, it would be at home in any continental restaurant. (Come to think of it, Europeans have been spiking mussels with curry for at least two centuries.)
Most Indian curries are heavily sauced and served with fragrant basmati rice and fresh-made breads. For sopping, I prefer Radhika’s unembellished naan ($3), the size and shape of a large irregular shoe sole. But ordering it sprinkled with garlic, basil or rosemary and onion won’t harm its usefulness. And raita — usually containing cucumber, but at Radhika available with bananas or even dates ($4) — is a definite must to combat heat.
Radhika’s wine and beer lists are far better than the usual selection found at Indian restaurants, including a number of artisan brews, for example, Xingu black beer from Santa Maria, Brazil, and North Coast Scrimshaw pilsner from Fort Bragg. I prefer lassi, the yogurt-based beverage available plain (a perfect foil for the spicier dishes) or sweet (mango or rosewater flavored) which substitutes for dessert.
Radhika’s sweets are just as good as their food. Pistachio and mango kulfi (Indian ice cream) and rice pudding are available for $6. A subscription to the Nite on the Town card costing $25 will get you a 20 percent discount on dinner for up to four people plus one of those desserts to pass around, a deal that can net you enough to pay for the entire cost of the cart in a single visit!
Radhika is one of a number of local Indian restaurants vying for patronage. Its cuisine is definitely up to and beyond that of most of its competitors and is now challenging the haute eateries along South Pasadena’s Restaurant Row. Is Radhika up to the task? You’d better believe it. And, by the way, did I mention those lamb chops?
966 Mission St.,
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