Photo by Heather XI've tasted many a flavorful sauce in my food critic days: nutty tahini over the finest falafel on the planet, relishy Bolivian salsa with murmurs of mint and cheese, Vietnamese lemongrass butter so electric I order an extra mound of white rice, stab each grain with a toothpick and soak the tiny suckers in the spicy butter one by one. But only one sauce ever inspired me to lick a plate clean in public: the mustard curry shrimp at the recently opened Rupee Room in Orange.
I'm a proud plate licker; it's a fetish inspired by my mother's extraordinary cooking. But whereas my parents and siblings wipe their bowls with tortilla scraps, I extend my tongue across every curvaceous inch as if it were a woman's chest. The rest of the Arellano clan loathes the gesture—mamialways yells, "You look like a cat!" when I do it, and she thinks cats are just above marmots in the animal kingdom—but I shrug and continue. What? I like food.
Giggle if you must, but you'll understand (if you don't already) in the Rupee Room. It's not in the best of locations—hidden in the Village Shopping Plaza in Orange, next door to Captain Blood's movie theater, far from the traffic of Tustin Avenue—but its interior is a stunner, designed to appease both Indian immigrants and their club-savvy desi children. Glass pillars encase a waterfall near the kitchen entrance. Golden bas-reliefs of imperial Raj processions hang from the walls. Booths are plush and wide; wiry, cushiony chairs look like a design student's final exam. Lush electronic music and the occasional bossa nova promote a sense of relaxation.
The opulence of the Rupee Room continues on the most intricate menu cover in Orange County: it's a carving (looks like wood, could be some kind of amazing plastic) of happy elephants cavorting in the jungle. Inside, more riches. One page is devoted to such Thai favorites as curries and noodles, another to Thai-Indian fusion dishes (my heart palpitates at the thought of their paper shrimp—fried shrimp rolls stuffed with bits of mango and peppers and balanced with a sweet mango chutney). The rest of the menu is given over to a wide swath of northern subcontinent foodstuffs, ranging from herb-laced lamb kebabs to Afghan rice dishes.
I've had many platters at the Rupee Room, but I always return to my tongue's muse—the mustard curry shrimp. It's a light, sweet but nevertheless zesty feast, accentuated with whole seeds of anise, cumin and mustard that pop with a gritty, fiery wallop. The shrimp are grilled and huge and slathered with the high-yellow curry sauce. Couple it with a cumin soda—it tastes as peppery and funky as it sounds—and temptation will soon seep into your heart as it did mine. And you will lick.
The first time it happened, my server—a shapely, wide-eyed beauty who looked like a younger Aishwarya Rai—had entered the kitchen to retrieve dessert. No one else was eating at the Rupee Room at the time. The maitre d' chatted on the phone.
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The clear, curry-speckled plate beckoned. I held it inches from my face. I inspected it for seeds, for the ginger shreds that added another dimension to the aforementioned seeds. I heard a commotion in the kitchen—she was returning.
Lick. Lick. Lick. Six swipes did it.
Aishwarya returned with a coconut flan. She looked at my plate—yellow when she left me, suddenly clean. We looked at each other. She took the plate from my table, smiled and said nothing. She understood.
THE RUPEE ROOM, 1170 N. TUSTIN, ORANGE, (714) 771-9898. OPEN SUN.-THURS., 5:30-10 P.M.; FRI.-SAT., 5:30-11 P.M. DINNER FOR TWO, $30-$80, EXCLUDING DRINKS. FULL BAR.