Photo by Jessica CalkinsI don't know if India is a third-world country, but if it's not, it certainly has box seats to the game. One-quarter of the population—more than 250 million people —live below the poverty line, which must be limbo-low since the per capita annual income is a paltry $444. India owes $93 billion in foreign debt (but it can afford nukes), and its public education system makes the Los Angeles Unified School District look like a collection of Ivy League prep schools: only 45 percent of Indian women are literate, a tick under the national average of 54 percent.
Hey, I don't make this stuff up. My sources are the World Bank and the U.N.
Given India's lot in life, it's expected that its fascinating, ancient cuisine should be served in humble surroundings at blue-collar prices. But then there's Royal Khyber. The self-proclaimed "restaurant of the year" unabashedly serves upscale cuisine in a setting more suited for coats and ties than T-shirts and jeans. Its location accents this perception; neighbors in the South Coast Plaza Village are Morton's, where cunning capitalists gnaw on $35 steaks, and Antonello, where the county's elite Republicans and socialites plan their nefarious domination schemes.
When fighting off a cold, I like nothing more than to funnel down a big, nasty curry dish to clean out the pipes, so to speak. This current bout of sniffles and coughs was particularly nagging, so I dropped by Royal Khyber for the biggest, nastiest curry dish in OC: the spicy chicken Madras.
This dish is one of a festive selection of "chef's specialty entrées," the kind you don't come across in regular Indian restaurant. For starters, the least expensive entrée is $16.95, topped by the nawabi raan, a whole leg of lamb marinated and slowly cooked for 24 hours in a tandoori oven. Cost: $50, or some 12 percent of India's per capita income.
These dishes are definitely upscale cuisine. There's a lobster marsala and lamb chops rampuri, kebab jambalaya and a methi quail Dumpukhat, in which two quails are marinated in a ginger-garlic fenugreek gravy. More traditional curry dishes such as chicken tikka masala and tandoori meats, the staples of Northern Indian cuisine, are tossed into a corner of the menu, a subtle sign indicating, "Yeah, we make this stuff, but it ain't what we're about."
Before I dove into the spicy chicken Madras, I opened with a lamb samosa, served perfectly crisp and filled with minced lamb and mint. On the side came a tangy tomato chutney, a nice touch. My wife, also fighting off a cold, opted for the chicken tikka masala with its rich tomato, ginger and cream curry. Royal Khyber's version of this staple is much richer and creamier than others and packed with large, tender chicken chunks. The side basmati rice carried the pleasant accent of fresh ginger.
But the point of this dinner was the spicy chicken Madras. This dish featured big chicken chunks and sliced tomatoes buried in a potent curry highlighted by freshly ground black pepper. There is hot, as with the habañero chile, which torches the tongue and throat, but nothing compares to the passionate flame of this curry. It envelops your entire body, raising leg hairs and opening sinus passages wide enough to pass a Ping-Pong ball through. It's not a painful feeling, but more one of submission—a physical deference to a higher power inducing a quasi-transcendental state.
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So a light sweat formed on my forehead, and my nose started running, causing somewhat embarrassing bouts of sniffling. My waiter, sensing the dominion of spices on my being, came by with a light yogurt sauce. "Here, mix this with the sauce to make it less spicy," he said.
He was right; it worked. But that wasn't the point. I needed to be cleansed, and this spicy chicken Madras performed more wonderfully than a dip in the Ganges. A chalky and sweet pistachio ice cream provided the perfect denouement, and I can proudly report that my cold has been stomped, beaten and flung into to complete oblivion.
Regardless of price, good Indian food has magical qualities.
Royal Khyber, located at 1621 Sunflower Ave., Santa Ana, is open Sun., 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. & 5:30-9:30 p.m.; Mon.-Thurs., 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. & 5:30-9:30 p.m.; Fri., 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. & 5:30-10:30 p.m.; Sat., 5:30-10:30 p.m. (714) 436-1010; www.royalkhyber.com. Full bar. Dinner for two, $40-$60, food only. All major credit cards accepted.