In an area rich with restaurant choice, it’s hard for restaurants to find a niche, and for diners in North Berkeley, Albany and El Cerrito, it’s hard to find a better local restaurant than CafÃ?Â© Raj.
CafÃ?Â© Raj just expanded, and it’s still crowded every night of the week. I think the secret is the olfactory siren-song that starts every afternoon around 3. The offshore breeze carries the distinctive, French-influenced North Indian/Pakistani sauces along Solano Avenue storefronts for blocks. An early dinner at CafÃ?Â© Raj is a good idea – it leaves more time to linger over the food.
The menu has stayed pretty much the same since the restaurant opened a few years back. For appetizers, the Vegetable Samosas (a bargain at $2.95) are the best bet – puffed triangle pastries packed with moderately seasoned potatoes and sweet peas. They are served with two sweet chutneys – mint and tamarind. They are never oily, and I always regret not ordering more. Spiced Beef Samosas have the same pastry shell, level of seasoning and chutneys, with a lean ground beef filling ($3.95). The Pakoras, filled with mixed vegetables ($2.50), or paneer (Indian cheese, $3.95) are less distinguished but still tasty. The surprise for me among them was the Onion Bajia, (spiced onion rings) – a successful marriage of Indian and American cuisines, also never oily, and with just enough kick to make sure you know where you’re eating. You might also start with crisp, plate-sized Papadam (like enormous lentil chips, flavor baked right in, and best when just made – $1.50) or the excellent Carrot-Ginger Soup (distinctive – thick and yet not heavy, a really great soup! – $3.50).
The menu is a la carte, divided somewhat obtusely into “Vegetarian Curries,” “Birianis,” “Special Non-Vegetarian Dishes,” “Special Vegetarian Dishes,” “Non-Vegetarian Curries,” and “Tandoori Grills,” is pretty extensive for such a small place. There are half a dozen sauces common to the 42 regular (and up to 3 daily special) dishes offered. Everything can be made mild enough for most Americans and spicy enough for the rest of us. The owner ran an Indian restaurant in Paris for a decade before moving to Northern California with his wife, who is from here. As a result, we eat out more often, and the curries at CafÃ?Â© Raj are tempered by international tastes, and not what curryphobic diners imagine – they are silky, complex and rich instead of sharp, acidic or overpowering.
Our staples are Saag Paneer (scrumptious Indian stewed spinach with cubed Indian cheese – $7.50), which we order mild, served on perfect basmati rice – the other standard options are Naan (plain flatbread) and Chappati (whole wheat flatbread) – and either Chicken Shai Korma (chicken pieces in a thick curry-saffron sauce with almonds, pistachios and cashews – $8.95), or Chicken Biriani (a generous plate of spiced rice with nuts and raisins, with plenty of relatively unadorned pieces of boned chicken – $9.75)
We’re also fond of Kofta Zafran (spiced meatballs in a creamy-thick saffron curry with nuts – $9.25), which I like to eat with Chappati, but one is never enough. (An extra is $1.25, but you might consider a variety of breads, such as the buttery whole-wheat Parathas – $1.75 – or the very kid-friendly Naan with Cheese – $2.50.) I tend to like stronger flavors than the rest of my family, so I add an order of Mixed Pickle (salty, spicy, gooey and irresistible – 50Ã?Â¢) for me and Raita (yogurt with diced tomato and cucumber, to cool and refresh the palate – $2.50) for everyone.
If we ate there more often, and got our fill of our top choices, we would also choose the Mater Paneer (“peas and cheese,” which is far better than it sounds – $7.50), the surprisingly tomatoey Lamb Rogan Josh (Raj’s version of the classic dish, with melt-in-your-mouth stewed lamb and a “melted cheese curry” sauce – $10.50), Channa Masala (garbanzo beans in tomato-based sauce, which is better here than almost anywhere else I’ve had it – $6.75), and Chicken Tikka (a pretty standard tandoori chicken, but pretty to look at, moist and very satisfying – $8.25).
I’ll try anything at CafÃ?Â© Raj – I’ve never found a dish I didn’t like there. The newest menu items are their fish “specials” (on the printed menu, but still new), which run from $9.75 to $11.95, and the Kofta Mahlai (a tasty, vegetarian version of the Kofta Zafran – $8.25).
I’m always full after dinner, but if I’ve shared well, I might have room for dessert (all three selections are $3.95), which for me generally means Gulab Jamun (milk pastry balls soaked in syrup, topped with aromatic rose water and sprinkles of coconut – aah), but I also enjoy Kheer (runny, pistachioey Indian rice pudding – very tasty and far lighter than the Gulab Jamun) and refreshing Kulfi (it’s not ice cream, and it doesn’t suffer from the comparison – frozen milk, ground almonds and pistachios, seasoned with cardamom and cinnamon).
We generally save money on beverages, indulging only in a Mango Lassi (yogurt shake – $1.95) for our son, but there is a selection of handmade beverages, standard soft drinks, a mild chai, hot tea and coffee, and Kingfisher and Taj Mahal beer.
The staff at CafÃ?Â© Raj is friendly and pretty competent – though we have had to ask for water more than once. They’ve seen our older son since he was a baby, and there are always a few young children in the restaurant. In fact, it’s a great place for a first dinner out for an infant – very kid-friendly, definitely not standoffish. (They remember our kids’ names.) The small, shared patio in front is a good place to wait for take-away meals or to walk with a fussy child. Parking is usually available within a block, sometimes on the residential side-streets, and not metered (yay, Albany!)