“Are you a food critic?” she asked — standing over me bearing a plate recently filled at Royal Cuisine’s buffet. “You look like a food critic.”
“What does a food critic look like?” I responded, lamely, attempting to fend off further contact. “Well," she replied, “you have several plates, you’re reading Food and Wine (I was doing Thanksgiving research, okay?), you’re taking notes …”
What to do but confess — but in the process I learned that Royal’s owners were formerly associated with India Chaat House near USAA, that she liked the buffet (I had ignored it — but it does look promising at $10.99), that the chicken tikka masala (popular but likely not really Indian in origin), was especially good.
Royal Cuisine bills itself as an Indo-Pakistani restaurant, but the menu doesn’t make any distinctions; rather, dishes seem to range from south to north in India with a number of offerings from the Punjabi state that sits on the border between the two countries. Toss a dart? My first one landed on the masala uttapam (southern, BTW), and it was a bullseye.
This “thick pancake” is made from a mix of fermented dal and rice, here topped with finely chopped chilies, onions, tomatoes and carrots forming almost a glaze. Spongy in texture, it would be fine as it is, but you’re also presented with sauces made from grated coconut, spiced tomato and beany sambal. Dip away; it’s all good, though the punchy tomato was a special favorite.
And while we’re on pancakes, the Mysore masala dosa may use the same flours, not fermented, but the form and filling are entirely different. This one comes loosely drooping over a plate as though it had been formed from a folded triangle of burnished leather. The filling may seem like basic potato and pea, but the spicing elevates the mix to an almost spiritual plane — an only slightly-too-lofty evaluation.
Continuing to toss darts at the other parts of the menu (vegetarian, non-vegetarian, Indo-Chinese, tandoori … ), it’s possible to land on dishes that aren’t all variations on lustrous brown, such as harali (hariyali) chicken with cilantro and mint. But I couldn’t have been happier with the three entrées I tried on two separate occasions — bring on the brown. Dal makhani is in its description a simple, Punjabi lentil and kidney bean dish with the added luxurious touch of cream. Let’s hear it for simple. I’m convinced that if I had grown up Punjabi, this would be my idea of comfort food: warm, buttery spices with added touches of perceived sweetness and latent chili heat, it was at once easy to understand and remarkably complex.
Royal’s korma is described as a “mild and aromatic cream sauce” — accurate as far as it goes, but hardly adequate. Much of the expected spice pantry seems to be there (cinnamon, cumin, garam masala), there is a lush creaminess (often yogurt), but it’s reinforced by a nutty quality (usually cashew), too. And no one thing grabs special attention. Which makes this sauce particularly good as the foil to unusually meaty cubes of just-randy-enough goat. Dip some simple, buttery naan into this one, noting that entrée servings are unusually large for an Indian restaurant.
Chicken Chettinad belies its brownness. The usual spicy super heroes are all in attendance, but it may be the addition of curry leaves that gives this southern dish, full of chunky thigh meat, its special, bright sharpness and bolster its lingering heat. Ladle over very long-grain rice or order some lacy-topped onion-filled naan to use as a flavor-packed spoon.
Then turn your attention to the chaat, the samosas, the pakoras. The standard chaat mix is texturally great and fresh, but there’s more to explore, including spiced nuts. Three-cornered-hat samosas may come filled with potato, there’s a flattened version with mung bean, a ball with potato and pea … the remaining batter-dipped pakora one day was a long, deceptively mild-looking chile. You are warned. All are served with remarkably flavor-packed chutneys: a bright green one with cilantro, mint and chile, and a surprisingly sweet but deep one standing in for the usual, more-bracing tamarind. Brown, but brown is good, remember?
Royal Cuisine 8931 Wurzbach Road, (210) 265-5463 The Skinny: Royal is a “desi,” or pan-Indian restaurant incorporating both Indian and Pakistani influences. There is a daily buffet, and menu items range from vegetarian to tandoori. Best bets: Masala uttapam and Masala dosa, dal makhani, goat korma, chicken Chettinad, all of the sweets and chaats, pakoras and samosas. Hours: 11-9 Sun.-Thurs., 11-10 Fri.-Sat. Price: $6.99-$17.99