Our plan was simple. Dinner at the new Indian restaurant Ruchi and then the late showing of Superbad at a nearby cinema. We were certain the plan would work. We bought our tickets online hours before the meal. We figured, barring a kitchen catastrophe, we'd have no problem getting to the move in time.
But we didn't account for the leftovers. Eggplant pakora, lamb saagwala, goat curry, rice, naan, various small side dishes: A little or a lot of everything we'd ordered remained on the table when we finally cried uncle. Even after we decided there wasn't enough of the pakora or the sides to bother saving, we had a couple of meals' worth of leftovers and nowhere to refrigerate them during the movie (well over two and a half hours with commercials and trailers) and the drive home (which would include a traffic jam at midnight, thanks to highway roadwork).
I've politely declined or conveniently "forgotten" more than a few doggie bags since I became a restaurant critic. This feast the rich curry, the verdant saagwala I couldn't leave behind.
Across the parking lot from Ruchi is a supermarket. We went over there and bought an insulated lunch bag and four sixteen-ounce packages of frozen store-brand green beans. We packed the green beans around the leftovers inside the lunch bag and voila! we could have our curry and eat it too.
(My lawyers advise me to state that in no way, whatsoever, do I or Riverfront Times endorse the method described in the previous paragraph as a safe or effective means to store cooked food for a prolonged period of time.)
(But that goat curry sure made a tasty lunch the next day.)
Ruchi is a restaurant that forces you to change your plans. Even if you understand that "Indian food" is a term so broad as to be meaningless, the reach of its menu just might surprise you.
Ruchi opened in late spring in Creve Coeur, just west of where Olive passes over I-270. It's actually the second Ruchi; the original opened in Kansas City several years ago. A yellowed Kansas City Star review sits in the front window.
The St. Louis location is in the middle of a small strip mall, which itself is nestled in one corner of a large shopping plaza. You enter into the large, open main dining room. It's an attractive space, if not especially remarkable. The lighting is pleasant, the music unobtrusive. To one side is the buffet area. Besides the standard Indian restaurant lunch buffet, Ruchi offers a dinner buffet on Saturday and Sunday evenings. For the purposes of this review, I had weekday, non-buffet dinners.
Dinner begins with a basket of complimentary papadum and four chutneys: one sharp with mint, a second fiery with chile, a third tart with tamarind and a fourth sweet with mango. The contrasts among the four flavors are thrilling. Yet you might do a double-take at the direct heat of the chiles or the mere presence of tamarind. You're probably used to Indian dishes that are a complex stew of spices, the heat (if any) gradual; you usually associate tamarind with Thai or Vietnamese cuisine.
Likewise, an order of pakora, that reliable appetizer, brings a dish of quite hot and absolutely addictive tomato sauce and, as cooling contrast, a mildly-sweet coconut chutney. The pakora are more or less perfect, the chickpea batter deep-fried to a thin, golden-brown crisp. Ruchi offers several different pakora; I recommend the vegetable sampler: eggplant, potato, spinach, bell pepper and onion. The onion pakora are better than your favorite onion rings.
The tamarind, coconut and overt heat are all indicative of India's south. Ruchi offers numerous specialties of this region's cuisine, which thanks to historical events and patterns of migration so complicated that they could fill (probably have filled) multiple tomes isn't nearly as well known in this country as the cuisine of India's north.
The menu groups several of these dishes as "South Specialties," but given the menu's length and its arrangement by type of meat (e.g. lamb or chicken) and by type of dish (e.g. biryani) as well as by region, you might easily miss them.
You shouldn't. And it goes without saying that if you come to Ruchi seeking another variation on lamb vindaloo or chicken tikka masala, you should change your plans.
The most famous dish of India's south might be dosa, a thin rice pancake about as large around as a compact car's tire. It's folded into a wedge that still overflows your plate. I tried the mysore masala dosa: a thin layer of very hot chutney is spread on the inside of the dosa, which is then folded around a mash of onion and potato. Though the chutney is the dominant flavor, the dosa itself has character, with a sour note vaguely reminiscent of East African injera.
The mysore masala dosa is served with sambar, a terrific lentil soup with a tart tamarind flavor and definite heat that's nicely softened by coconut. You can order a bowl of sambar on its own, but you'll receive a taste of it if you order your main entrée in the thali style (a traditional Indian platter in which small servings of side dishes soup, potato, chickpea and dessert are arranged around a mound of rice).
Of course, the south of India is such an enormous region that any attempt to define its cuisine as this or that is bound to fail. Take Ruchi's Hyderabadi biryani, basmati rice with chunks of lamb. This has the subtle spicing and gradual heat more common to northern dishes which makes sense, since Hyderabad is one of the northernmost southern cities. The biryani is especially delicious when you mix in the strongly flavored sauce almost like a lamb demiglace served on the side.
If the southern specialties don't catch your attention, the numerous goat dishes might. That's why I tried the goat curry, its deep, funky flavor unlike any curry I'd had before. When I ordered this, our server also brought us a dish of "butter chicken," its flavor as rich with ghee (clarified butter) as you might expect. Ruchi's owner happened by and suggested I combine the goat curry and butter chicken and then scoop it up with freshly baked, wonderfully blistered naan. The result retained the curry's full flavor, but now with a luscious, buttery undertone. Just fantastic.
Of course, if you must have more typical Indian dishes, Ruchi likely won't disappoint. I've already mentioned the pakora; samosas are excellent too. While the shrimp in my order of shrimp vindaloo were slightly overcooked, the sauce itself was quite good (if toned down for the American palate). An order of alu gobi brought tender cauliflower and potato with an elegant blend of seasonings.
Still, don't hesitate to veer from your usual Indian-restaurant plan and try something different. I'll join you just as soon as I finish eating all these damn green beans.
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