Cheese 'n' Peas, Please!

Lower Queen Anne's Roti is a spicy sanctuary from the cold.

If ginger, garlic, and chili powder make a dish flavorful, why not toss in turmeric, coriander, cumin, cinnamon, cloves, and cardamom too? That's the core philosophy of Indian cooking, and Roti—a small, warm space adorned with traditional paintings and wall hangings—celebrates it exuberantly. The restaurant is getting a lot of buzz in its new, more prominent location (it moved to Lower Queen Anne from the top of the hill just over a year ago); friends and readers alike have been commanding me to eat there since June. To combat the nose-stinging cold that ushered in 2005, I calculated a little feast: a handful of friends plus myriad spices equals warmth and happiness galore. At Roti, the formula works. The kitchen grinds its spices fresh every day, which makes a colorful menu on paper just as interesting on the plate. It's wrongheaded to start an Indian meal without the flatbread called naan, and Roti offers the vegetable-stuffed variety, so we asked for the standby, spinach ($4.50), as well as an order of gobi naan ($3.50) filled with minced cauliflower. Besides coming up with spice combinations as lively as a Bollywood movie, Indian cuisine excels at transmogrifying controversial veggies into something incontrovertibly delicious, and the gobi naan was a perfect example. Its mild but distinctive sweetness won our favor in just a few bites. After carving up and wolfing down delicious, hat-shaped vegetable samosas packed with potatoes, peas, and several of the aforementioned spices ($4.50 for two), we readied ourselves for the main event. Deciding on five entrées for five people can be like herding cats, yet we managed to settle on eggplant bharta ($10.95), prawn vindaloo ($14.95), mango chicken ($12.95), vegetable kofta ($11.95), and the undisputed classic: mattar paneer ($10.95), also known—in my circle, at least—as "cheese 'n' peas." Gingery and spreadable, the bharta made believers of even eggplant's staunchest opponents. The prawns in the vindaloo were firm and juicy, yet the sauce—supposedly a "thick onion-tomato gravy"—was a letdown, more salty than anything else, and not red enough to give evidence of tomatoes. (We asked our waitperson for "medium-spicy," which proved too bland across the board.) The chicken got everyone's nod for its big chunks of mango, while the kofta struck out: Deep-fried veggie "meatballs" (not unlike falafel) shouldn't be mushy, "creamy tomato sauce" notwithstanding, and their flavor was too sweet, suggesting an excess of carrot and not enough potato. Luckily, the mattar paneer performed like a thoroughbred. Indian "cottage cheese" has a tofu-like consistency and flavorlessness; it takes on the taste of whatever surrounds it. Roti's paneer bathes in a complex red sauce seasoned with most of the spices in the Indian pantry. Once the peas add their sweet crispness, what you have is India's answer to macaroni and cheese: comfort food par excellence. There's nothing fancy about Roti, but you can bring a half-dozen friends, eat well, and have a grand old time, tucked away from the winter chill. I recommend it. Roti, 530 Queen Anne Ave. N., 206-216-7684, LOWER QUEEN ANNE. Open 11 a.m.–2 p.m. and 5–10 p.m. Mon.–Fri.; noon–10 p.m. Sat.–Sun.

 
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