By the time the spatchcock makhani shows up, any purists at the table may have already run for the hills. It could be the soundtrack, which skips from JLo to Paula Abdul, that tips them over the edge. Or the maximalist décor, with its patterned tiles and animal prints, owing as much to Iris Apfel as Wes Anderson. More than likely, however, it'll be the presence of sunrise lime in the pickles, or the garlicky roasted bone marrow riding shotgun with a slightly spongy, ghee-greasy dosa.
Raja, which opened in a sweeping indoor/outdoor space on Kellett Street in late July, dubs its approach to Indian cuisine as "authentic but not traditional". That's certainly an apt description of the aforementioned spatchcock, touted by our enthusiastic waiter as a winning riff on butter chicken. Here, the bird gets an overnight buttermilk marinade before a quick stint in the tandoor. Rather than being smothered in the ocean of fenugreek-fragrant makhani sauce, the chook is broken down and gently laid on top, as if to draw your attention to the quality of the meat and the nuanced effects of the oven. This is a telling move.
Before taking the reins at Raja in her first head chef role, Kolkata-born Ahana Dutt spent the better part of seven years at Firedoor alongside Lennox Hastie, and what she took from that experience runs through her menu. It's there in a lemon myrtle oil that underlines the salty freshness of finely chopped raw albacore on a raft of chickpea flour and silverbeet "toast". There, too, in the way tender, clean-flavoured goat riblet meat barely hangs onto the bones, emphatically spiced with tamarind and habanero. And again in the just-charred edges of a sugarloaf cabbage layered with masoor dhal and set over grainy macadamia salan – a Hyderabadi curry typically made from peanuts and sesame seeds.
Not everything is new-fashioned. Dutt's vegetable chop – fluffy fritters of mashed beetroot, carrots, peanuts, potato and coconut – is a direct tip of the toque to street vendors all across Bengal, and a winning one at that. To conclude, two traditional desserts – gajar ka halwa and bhapa doi – join forces, so that a quenelle of purple carrots cooked down in condensed milk floats on a thick cloud of saffron-stained baked yoghurt. A squeeze of acid might do well to break up all the density, but it's safe to say there's nothing else quite like it in town.
Frankly, that's true of Raja more broadly, too, right through to the on-theme cocktails and sommelier Ella Stening's 160-strong non-interventionist wine list, which ventures intelligently beyond the obvious. Just when every third new Sydney restaurant has started to feel like a tediously familiar brasserie facsimile, what we have here is a refreshingly different prospect: an unconventional confluence of heritage, experience and cultures, with eyes fixed on the future.