Dinner at Rajdhani can resemble the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” sequence from Disney’s Fantasia sometimes, a parade of waiters and waitresses stopping by your table in bewildering succession, ladling drips of this and drops of that into the tiny stainless-steel bowls in front of you — dal flowing in streams and the lentil curry sambar measured out in oceans, the flatbread roti piling up in mountains and channa (chickpeas) rising like the tide, the cooking of central India overwhelming you with the labyrinths of flavors and profusion of perfumes.
On the second floor of a newish complex in Artesia’s Little India, above jewelry stores, sari shops and a supermarket devoted to exotic produce, Rajdhani is a Gujarati dining hall, a long, fragrant facility devoted to the pulses, long-cooked vegetables and fenugreek-spiked starches of central India, the complex vegetarian cooking of India’s Gujarat state. There are other restaurants in the neighborhood serving Gujarati food, including the venerable Jay Bharat and the snack-intensive Surati Farsan Mart, but none that operate at Rajdhani’s level of intensity. Especially during the crowded weekend dinner hour, Rajdhani is total-immersion cuisine.
Menus technically exist at Rajdhani, slender slips of paper tucked into leatherette folders, and it is possible to order an à la carte meal. If you stop by on a weekday, you can order bajra na rotla, which is a thick, hot bread served with sugar and ghee, and available only when the kitchen has time to make it. But as a matter of course, the waiters assume that you are going to have the set thali special, and dinner service will probably have started before you have shrugged your way out of your coat and realized that you are going to be drinking lots of the dilute house-made buttermilk, because that’s what your metal tumbler will be filled with instead of mango lassi or beer.
What the owners like to call Gujarati dim sum might more properly be called a bottomless thali, a 10-course combination platter constantly refilled in all of its components until you cry uncle, so that after 45 minutes, your plate looks exactly the way it did before you started eating, save the odd scrap of chapati or drip of lentil dal.
The details of Rajdhani’s thalis may differ from day to day, but the basic form of each meal is the same. There will be hot puri, hollow flour puffs as delicate as fried air; freshly made, crackerlike papadums; and thin, supple chapatis, like thin, whole-wheat tortillas, moistened with ghee. Khandvi — tart, fermented-batter crepes smeared thickly with puréed lentils and coiled into slender jelly rolls — are sprinkled with chopped herbs and served in bouncy 2-inch chunks that are as hard to stop munching as pistachio nuts.
Two of the metal bowls on your plate will be filled with soupy purées, probably the cream-yellow spiced yogurt called kadhi and some sort of smartly lightened lentil dal; the other three with fiery vegetable stews — chickpeas perhaps, a gooey curry of fresh okra, potatoes cooked with peas, molten eggplant cooked with onions, puréed peas with cubes of paneer cheese, or mixed vegetables with chile. There will be a miscellaneous fritter — I’ve had both delicious corn pakoras and kachori, which are little pea-stuffed pastry cannonballs that expand to 14 times their original size in your digestive tract. You can annihilate your palate with fiendishly hot grilled chiles if you want. At some point during the meal, you will find rice and buttery crushed lentils on your plate. And then you will have it again, maybe thrice, soups refilled spoonful by spoonful, tumblers of buttermilk refreshed, vegetables replenished, puris and chapatis restocked so often and so generously that you may well go through a dozen without realizing it. Rajdhani’s thali does resemble dim sum in a way, if you can imagine a dim sum service where you eat the same 10 things over and over rather than trying dozens of new things, a Groundhog Day of Indian meals.
The menu rather sternly reminds you that desserts are single-serving only, and you will have to choose between a rich, saffron-tinted yogurt thickened to resemble homemade mayonnaise, rose-water-scented Indian ice cream sprinkled with basil seeds, grated carrots waist-deep in melted butter and a fascinating kind of halvah made from garbanzo beans. If this is what garbanzo beans taste like when you toast them black, grind them and dose them with sugar, then vanilla and chocolate may have a new friend.
Rajdhani, 18525 Pioneer Blvd., Artesia, (562) 402-9102. Lunch and dinner daily. No alcohol. Lot parking. AE, D, MC, V. Lunch or dinner for two, inclusive, $22. Recommended meal: thali special.
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