Great Plates: G’raj Mahal

G’raj Mahal is one of the latest food truck turned brick-and-mortar success stories – as the restaurant now occupies an expansive space just across the street from the lot where its formidable reputation was built.

“I knew I was going to do it funky.”

With bicycle frames and wheels lining the entrance, pink sheer drapes flanking the tent-covered patio, and purple and green tinged reclaimed wood adorning the building’s walls, the colorful new location can’t be missed. And now with over three thousand square feet of patio space, the restaurant can seat more guests than ever as well as cater to large and small private events.

The back patio often plays hosts to local music acts & entertainment and towering fabric tents provide shade to low-level seating that invites leisurely family-style dining. Says owner Sidney Roberts of the Indian restaurant she always hoped to build, “I knew I was going to do it funky.” And did she ever.

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Sidney, a warm and spunky native-Austinite, started G’Raj Mahal five years ago with her husband, Antony Roberts, who hails from Goa, India. After considering many directions for their new venture – entertaining ideas for Italian, French and even breakfast and brunch concepts – Sidney realized what she really wanted was to open an Indian restaurant. Rainey Street provided the opportunity.

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Before G’raj, Sidney (at the age of 19) was challenged with an apprenticeship that had her working twelve to twenty-hour shifts in the kitchen of a restaurant. The experienced gained from her start has helped shape the standards and practices she puts in place today. “I had the fortune to be introduced as a chef to genuine cooking from the beginning. No opening cans… if you want tomato sauce, you use tomatoes.” And to prove her point, Sidney even makes her own ketchup. Her value of local, organic and fresh produce is something of a rarity in most Indian restaurant kitchens, which is a clear factor that sets G’raj Mahal apart from the rest.

Chicken Tikka Masala
Chicken Tikka Masala

creamy tomato base with onions and peppers, [Gluten-free] [Dairy-free Optional]

Chicken Tikka Masala

creamy tomato base with onions and peppers, [Gluten-free] [Dairy-free Optional]

Seafood Coconut Curry
Seafood Coconut Curry

creamy tomato base with onions and peppers, [Gluten-free] [Dairy-free Optional]

Seafood Coconut Curry

seafood, freshly grated coconut, chiles [Gluten-free] [Dairy-free]

Saag Paneer
Saag Paneer

creamy tomato base with onions and peppers, [Gluten-free] [Dairy-free Optional]

Saag Paneer

traditional curried spinach [Gluten-free] [Dairy-free optional]

Mango + Rosewater Lassis
Mango + Rosewater Lassis

creamy tomato base with onions and peppers, [Gluten-free] [Dairy-free Optional]

Mango + Rosewater Lassis

made with fresh yogurt [Gluten-free]

Baingan Aloo
Baingan Aloo

creamy tomato base with onions and peppers, [Gluten-free] [Dairy-free Optional]

Baingan Aloo

chunks of roasted eggplant, potato, onion [Gluten-free] [Dairy-free]

Sorpotel
Sorpotel

creamy tomato base with onions and peppers, [Gluten-free] [Dairy-free Optional]

Sorpotel

traditional Goan pork chili, spices, onion, garlic [Gluten-free] [Dairy-free]

Screen Shot 2014-06-20 at 9.01.28 AMAt the new G’raj Mahal you’ll want to stroll straight to the back outdoor area, and prepare yourself for the impending gustatory bliss.

Saag paneer, one of the most popular Indian staples, is a creamy spinach dish that is possibly the best you’ve ever had. Some folks who haven’t had Indian food before may ask, “Why does anyone want a bowl of creamed spinach with their entree?” and Sidney confidently replies, “Here we go…you’re gonna find out.”

Sidney and her team use hoards of fresh spinach that’s cooked down and thickened with cream and a wealth of spices to perfect this Indian classic. It’s almost mandatory to have at least two orders of papadam per table. Papadam, a crisp made purely from lentils and spices, are a great accompaniment to your meal. However, I prefer to order them alongside my drink, to tide me over while my order is being prepared. Naan is glorious, and sadly full of gluten, but papdam is inherently gluten-free and I’ve been mesmerized by how perfectly crispy and flat G’raj Mahal seems to make theirs. If you’re also wondering, Sidney jokes, “Its our elephants that walk on top of them.” Their new spot may boast more space, but I’d like to see how they fit those elephants in the tiny food truck that came before.

Coconut curries are always my go-to order in Indian restaurants and it’s no surprise that G’raj Mahal’s doesn’t dissappoint. Instead of the sweetened versions I’m used to, Sidney holds the coconut cream and milk and instead adds grated fresh coconut in the Seafood Coconut Curry dish creating a sauce that’s more spicy hot than sweet and creamy. This Goan twist is simmered with chilis to really cleanse and dazzle your senses.

To cool your tastebuds during a particularly blazing dish, I suggest ordering a Lassi. Once again, only the best ingredients are used to make this luxurious drink: house-made yogurt and pure fruit reductions leaving an intensly flavorful and slightly yogurty-sour, cold refreshment. There’s always the mango option, but I prefer the rose lassi because of the perfect blend of cardamom and rose flavor that’s slightly perfumey and highly addicting.

It’s difficult to choose favorites, but if I were forced…the Baingan Aloo wins every time. This North Indian dish boasts roasted eggplant chunks with potatoes and sauteed onions and is one I could go on and on about. Sidney happens to agree on the subject and says her, “mouth waters every time [she] talks about it.” Eggplant is a vegetable that I’m pretty picky about, but I’ve never met a potato I didn’t like. In this particular presentation, the eggplant is roasted to buttery perfection and it flirts with that potato like a princess in a Disney movie. Who can say no to that?

Of all the things I love about G’Raj Mahal, what I appreciate most is their attentive service and care of dietary restrictions. I’ve been a loyal customer since I moved to Texas nearly three years ago and have been treated with care and confidence in all my dozens of visits. Every single entree is 100% gluten-free. Vegans and vegetarians alike have dedicated menus and servers are happy and comfortable openly sharing ingredients throughout the menu.

One particular item to note is that their BYOB status is no more however, their perfectly paired (and reasonably-priced) offerings just may soothe your sorrows. Order up a bottle of Macedon Pinot Noir and you’ll agree. Or just look for Sidney who’s hand-picked each option and knows them very well…She’ll happily steer you in the right direction.

G’raj Mahal has everything I wish for in a restaurant: dishes are generously portioned, the ambiance can’t be beat, every detail in the design is ordered to perfection, the food is remarkable, and it has just the right amount of funky that Sidney promised. It’s Austin dining at its finest.

Screen Shot 2014-06-20 at 9.05.43 AMMy first visit to G’raj Mahal was nearly a year ago, and actually it was even with Jess Simpson over there on the left.

This was when the Indian restaurant was churning out dishes from a tiny trailer on a corner lot of Rainey St. – and where you also might have a couple feline friends stake their claim at a table next to you. The food, then served on small white Dixie plates, rivaled that of any Indian restaurant in Austin.

Sitting now in a low-level fuchsia seat on the back patio of the restaurants’ new brick-and-mortar location, I’m curious to see how the establishment has changed since then. Does it just have some impressive new digs or is there now more to expect from the food as well? Where does G’raj Mahal rank now that it is in the class of one of those “formal restaurants?”

The owner of G’raj Mahal is the bubbly and affable Sidney Roberts. She carries a contagious excitement and energy in her wake and as she tells the stories behind the handmade silver bowls, the canopies, the drapes, and that very fuchsia seating, you realize that you are gazing upon a realized dream – a vision that’s been slowly building in her mind since the day she discovered her love for food and cooking.

The dishes at G’raj Mahal are just as inspired, and just as charming. Sidney brings an everything-made-from-scratch philosophy and her Goan husband brings forward authentic spices and preparations specific to that region. The result is a bold creativity that isn’t afraid to invent a method that yields the most velvety almond cream you’ve ever tasted (completely devoid of chalky fibers), and then put that almond cream in perhaps Indian food’s most recognizable dish – Chicken Tikka Masala. “I just simply think it tastes better,” Sidney notes, and you’d be wrong to argue with her.

G’raj Mahal the trailer was the kind of place where everyone had a favorite dish, and the new space offers a chance to dial those dishes up a notch. Sidney explains that the Seafood Coconut Curry can now be served more traditionally, with whole fish rather than filets, and with the sauce delicately stuffed inside the fish rather than baked in.

The classics, like the popular Saag Paneer, a dish that here is reduced from a whole bag of fresh spinach for each individual serving, somehow finds a way to taste even better in the new setting – showing that a dash of elegance and retreat can at times be the ingredients to transform a great plate to near perfection.

I remember finding some new favorites during this visit; the aforementioned Seafood Coconut Curry that’s as bold and fiery as the tropic west corner of India it’s native to, and the Sorpotel, a traditional pork chili that basks in a thin simmering pool of masala.

But more than the flavors I remember the feeling of abundance felt while gazing upon the plates that seemed to beautifully arrange themselves on rich cherry wood, the satisfaction felt as I spooned the dishes from their silver bowls onto delicate, airy slices of Naan, and the smiling faces and laughter of everyone gathered underneath a white canopy. G’raj Mahal provides a backyard family meal experience you’ve never had before – homemade Indian food with unexpected twists that excite the palate, and a setting that allows you to get lost in the joy of the company you’re dining with.

Fans of the trailer will surely enjoy the restaurant’s new incarnation as it is able to successfully reproduce the charm that made the original great while growing the breadth and pace at what it is able to serve from its kitchen. The new G’raj Mahal has become not only my favorite Indian restaurant in Austin, but one of my favorite restaurants of any cuisine. Sometimes change can be a beautiful thing.

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G’raj Mahal

73 Rainey St
Austin, TX 78701
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Photography by Michelle Min
Writing: Jess Simpson + Chris Perez


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