The Essence of India

Tandoori chicken with mint-yogurt sauce

Offering exotic flavors, textures and aromas, Indian restaurants have proliferated across the local area. Here we profile five that stand apart from the crowd.

Cilantro Indian Café

What began as a small takeout joint has blossomed into a sit-down outpost complete with a bi-level dining area, vibrant colored walls and whimsical signs containing quotes from the likes of Mahatma Gandhi, Eleanor Roosevelt and Muhammad Ali.

Co-proprietor Tavassum Rahmen’s food celebrates the rich flavor profile of her native northeast India. She runs the restaurant alongside her husband, Mustafa Ansari.

The owners source herbs and vegetables from the Raleigh Farmer’s Market. Popular menu items include lamb biryani, chicken tikka masala and delectable roghni naan bread.

“The bread is a not a traditional tandoori or pita, but it has its own unique texture that is somewhere in the middle,” Ansari said.

The interior of Cilantro Indian Café

Served with each dish, the signature cilantro chutney contains just the right balance of spiciness and citrusy zest. Wash it down with a refreshing mango lassi, aka Indian smoothie.

Don’t miss the made-in-house desserts. Order the aptly named Messy Mocha Cake or the Cardamom Pistachio Cheesecake, which brilliantly melds distinct ingredients to capture the true flavors of India.

Cilantro Indian Café
107 Edinburgh South Drive
MacGregor Village, Cary
(919) 234-1264

Dawat Indian Restaurant

Overheard at Dawat: “This place serves the best Indian food in the Triangle.” Based on the lunchtime crowd still going strong at 2 p.m., there’s evidence to support such a pronouncement.

Although business hums, the long, narrow dining room is still quiet enough to carry on conversation without raising a voice. Pendant lights hang above a mixture of simple booths and tables.

Chef/owner Harinder Singh offers an impressive range of vegetarian and non-vegetarian options, including kadai paneer, which is Indian cottage cheese in masala sauce, spinach-infused lamb saag, chicken mango and lobster curry.

North Indian food is well-represented at Dawat, including the popular tandoori chicken.

A midday buffet allows diners to sample a variety of house favorites such as samosas, butter chicken and the vegetarian biryani.

“It’s not unusual to have people waiting for a seat at lunchtime,” said Singh, a native of India’s Punjab region. No doubt they crave the clay-oven fired kebabs, never mind the 10 varieties of specialty breads.

Be advised: If you approach the restaurant from the south on Davis Drive, you’ll have to make a U-turn to get there. It’s a small inconvenience for a tasty payoff.

Dawat Indian Restaurant
3735 Davis Drive #105, Morrisville
(919) 924-0503

Nazara Indian Bistro

The Indian word “nazara” means “beautiful scenery,” and that’s entirely fitting for this posh new restaurant. Indigo-toned walls are lined with chic white banquettes under contemporary light fixtures that provide soothing illumination.

Nazara embodies the fulfillment of a dream for longtime friends Satnam Singh and Mangal Singh, who are not related. The two natives of India had wanted to open a restaurant together for years.

“Both of us have been involved in the restaurant business since we were 16 years old,” said Satnam, who operates as owner/manager while Mangal serves as executive chef. “We have a passion for providing fresh, good quality food for our guests.”

Dishes like the tandoori mix and the seafood kerala curry keep Nazara patrons happy. Nazara means “beautiful scenery,” an apt description of the restaurant’s dining area.

The chicken seekh kebob, adraki lamb champe and shrimp kerala curry are solid selections that exhibit the chef’s ability to create traditional and contemporary Indian dishes.

“The menu includes special creations you won’t find anywhere else,” said Mangal. “The murg mussalam, or chicken drumsticks, is a popular spicy dish. It’s my mother’s recipe, and the meat is slow-braised for four hours.”

Nazara offers a daily lunch buffet with diverse options.

“There are many different sauces and curries for people to try,” Mangal said.

Nazara Indian Bistro
1945 High House Road, Cary
(919) 694-5353

Rajbhog Café

The café’s slogan, “a taste of India,” is appropriate, as diners take an eclectic culinary expedition across the subcontinent. Try the savory appetizer chaats from the west, tandoori dishes from the north or Bengali sweets from the east.

An all-you-can-eat buffet is available at lunchtime daily and keeps customers coming back.

“All our meats are 100 percent halal,” meaning prepared according to Islamic law, “including lamb, chicken and goat, whether it is from the buffet or ordered from the menu,” said owner Deep Patel, originally from Gujarat.

Rajbhog Café offers 100-percent halal dishes from across the Indian subcontinent, and an all-you-can-eat lunch buffet.

A market section contains prepackaged spices and nuts, while a spacious display case teems with exquisite specialty sweets like milk-based confections burfi and halwa and deep-fried jalebi, which is similar to funnel cake.

“Sweets are made fresh daily,” said Patel.

Rajbhog Café
3607 Davis Drive, #111, Morrisville
(919) 585-5333

Saffron Restaurant & Lounge

Maggy Award winner Saffron is no stranger to accolades. The upscale restaurant consistently churns out Indian delicacies refined by intricate culinary techniques.

Acclaimed Executive Chef Manohar Arya finesses traditional and modern Indian dishes with aplomb. Try the satisfying bestseller chicken tikka masala, the Nihari lamb shank or the robust Andhra kingfish curry. Prefer vegetarian? Go for the dal Bukhara, or black lentil.

Saffron’s Nihari lamb shank is fall-off-the-bone tender thanks to a slow braise.

“We have been in the heart of the RTP for 10 years, and our food attracts all types of clientele,” said owner and north India native Raj Tiwari. “We focus on providing fresh, healthy food every day.”

It’s all served in a pristine, modern dining room with striking 20-foot ceilings. “We do not have typical Indian décor but more of a merger between the east and the west,” said Tiwari.

Saffron presents a lunch buffet seven days a week. Save room for some rewarding carrot halwa pudding or mango mousse, as dessert.

The Dahi Malai Kebab, a vegetarian dish featuring kebabs made with yogurt, cheese and pimentos.

Saffron Restaurant & Lounge
4121 Davis Drive, Morrisville
(919) 469-5774

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