Royal Khyber's best ingredient: atmosphere
Upscale Indian restaurant Royal Khyber recently celebrated 30 years of serving beautifully prepared dishes with aesthetic flourishes originating in the days of emperors.
I wasn't expecting a meal at a palace, but I had high expectations, especially walking through the door and seeing a wall of accolades, including Zagat's. While my visits were pleasant enough, I was mostly underwhelmed by the food and the service, especially for the price. The most memorable part of the experience came in the details: lovely platters and garnishes and interesting paintings on the walls.
The Santa Ana restaurant, near South Coast Plaza, offers a more upscale look than many other Indian restaurants. The atmosphere is dark and formal, especially at dinner. Textile upholstered chairs anchor the dining room with tables covered in white linens. Paintings depicting life in India are more refined than the bejeweled goddess motif often found in more casual settings.
On a Friday night we were greeted and seated promptly, but our encounter with our server felt a bit rushed. She smiled but answered questions with a slight edge of brusqueness. We started with the vegetable snack, a mix of four onion fritters, a potato and pea samosa and a potato patty for $7.95. We liked the tangy chutney dipping sauce. Our favorite snack was the silver-dollar shaped patty, with a soft creamy interior and crisp, hash brown-like exterior.
We tried the navrattan khorma and the malai kofta, both $13.95. The first dish was fine, a mix of lima beans, carrots, cauliflower, zucchini and red pepper covered in a mild sauce of tomato and ginger. The malai kofta, vegetable dumplings with a creamy red sauce, was a disappointment when compared with preparation elsewhere. I like the savory, colorful variety of packed balls of veggies, but these were mushy white cylinders of purÃ©ed potatoes, cauliflower and house-made paneer cheese. They tasted like rich, over-buttered potatoes. The sauce was well-spiced but best suited to camouflaging the dumplings. The garlic naan ($4.25) was warm, thick and tasty. We also shared a dish of basmati rice ($4.95), which was just barely enough.
The most interesting part of the meal came in the form of a little square of what looked like tinfoil stuck in the middle of our entrees, along with a maraschino cherry. Our served explained that the sheet is edible and made of real silver. I later learned the tasteless vark was a tradition developed for food served to emperors.
On our way out, we helped ourselves to a scoop of anise seeds, the black licorice-tasting breath freshener, certainly more fun that grabbing a mint.
Back for lunch, I liked the look better with light from the windows lightening the mood. Even with several tables nearby – a group of businessmen in suits and a multigenerational family – we could easily chat without raising our voices. We each ordered a mango lassi made with sweet canned mango pulp imported from India and tangy yogurt, made in house three times a week. While refreshing and delicious, they cost more than a Jamba Juice smoothie at $6.25 each.
We were served by the same waitress as before, but this time she came across as more present and attentive.
I was eager to try the specialty olive stuffed naan ($4.95), a standout if you love green olives (or martinis). Owner Arun Puri said his wife developed the recipe a few years ago after watching her husband sip a martini. I loved the warm bits of chopped olives layered in the thin wheat bread. It tasted so fresh and wholesome but also bold with the salty olives. Normally, I like to dip the bread in sauces and dishes, but with this naan I wanted to savor every bite without embellishment. The kitchen also prepares an onion basil naan and naan stuffed with lamb or chicken.
The tandoori chicken ($14.40) arrived hot from the traditional mesquite charcoal-fueled tandoor oven on a cast iron pan, with two red clay-colored drumsticks and a breast. Squeezing lemon juice on top of the chicken and strips of grilled onion made sizzling sounds like bacon frying in a pan. The reddish color comes from the deep marinating process of the whole bird with yogurt, saffron, ginger garlic paste and chili. The chicken tasted tender and flavorful without too much heat.
The vegetarian thali ($18.95) came on a beautifully arranged silver platter of spinach and cauliflower, eggplant with tomato and brown lentils served in delicate silver dishes. The platter included a small serving of rice and choice of plain or garlic naan as well as a small salad and raita yogurt sauce. Preparation is elaborate. My favorite, the eggplant bhartha, for instance, is baked in the tandoori oven until it's charred. The vegetable is then peeled and combined with tomatoes, fresh ginger and yellow onions cooked to the point of sweetness. I liked that each dish tasted fresh and varied in level of spiciness, but again, I ran out of rice while I still had plenty of food to finish.
Royal Khyber certainly has a long history in Orange County, and has made some creative menu adaptations. But in all, I found the food largely unexceptional for the price. In retrospect, I probably should have gone with the anniversary special, which is still being offered: a three-course meal and a glass of wine for $30.
Contact the writer: email@example.com or 714-796-3686