Roti Gut

Everything's great at this Queen Anne mainstay, until the food arrives.

Inside Roti, the walls are like an Indian advent calendar—little shuttered windows cut into the overbuilt walls that open onto visions of everyday Indian life. Paintings of men walking oxen and women doing household chores and views of small-town events speak to a kind of charming, slice-of-life sweetness. Walking in the door off lower Queen Anne Avenue—from the much more realistic world outside, with its scattershot mix of bars and Thai restaurants, after-dark action in Dick’s parking lot and equally (though differently) charming visions of gap-toothed punks pacing the boundaries of their mini-ecosystem in front of the Mecca Cafe, the urban yuppies and change-grubbing street people all rubbing shoulders on the crowded sidewalks—is like stepping through the halides and straight into someone’s slide show of their vacation to rural India.

Roti is warm inside, and dim and close. The ceiling is a grid of colored lights. Every support pillar has been bulked out with carved wooden facings lit from within, and every flat surface not expressly meant for the serving or consumption of pakora, naan, or curry has been set with statues, delicately hammered tin bowls, and towering sculptures of gods and goddesses riding horses or sitting lotus-style with looks of preternatural calm on their stone faces. The soft music, all drums and sitars and sharp discord, seems to fall from above like rain.

This is what I like about Roti, what I fell for the moment I stepped inside. I like the space. I like the clutter and closeness of it. I like its slightly threadbare feel, with its worn carpet and carefully laid tables, the weirdly bright buffet table in the back, the soft cloth covers on the menus. The curvy tin cups that the waiters fill with water grow cold to the touch and make everything taste vaguely metallic—like well water drawn from great depth. I like the quick, competent service, the hollow tap and scrape of metal spoons against metal bowls, the deep banquette along the right-hand wall which seems to enfold me when I sit there. I like the quiet of Roti, even when I’m not the only one inside.

What I don’t like is everything else.

Open for more than seven years in this location (after coming down from higher up the hill), Roti has stood the test of time in a competitive neighborhood. Owner and chef Davinder Kohli, who runs the place with his wife, Avinash, made his bones as a hotel cook in New Delhi before attempting to bring the authentic flavors of Northern India to this storefront in the middle of Seattle.

When he did, he made a decision to do things right in his kitchen: to get whole spices (less a grace note to the Indian canon than the core of its existence) into his pantry straight from the source and have his crew grind them fresh each morning; to make his naan from scratch and cook it to order; to work from his own recipes only, uncompromisingly; to not cook down to a clientele who might be unfamiliar with methi chicken, onion bhaji, potato vara, or dum aloo. I really like the picture at the top of the Roti website showing a bunch of cooks and chefs in their white jackets, toques, and turbans, looking for all the world like some kind of badass culinary commando unit just waiting to cut throats and cook tandoori lamb.

On paper, Roti has everything going for it. It should’ve been great. And it was—right up until the first plates arrived.

“Can a person die of ghee poisoning?”

That was my first question to my wife Laura when I stepped outside to call her between courses on my first night at Roti.

“You really want me to look that up?” she asked.

“No, I’m just saying…”

“Saying what?”

“That I’d be a pretty good research subject for lethal levels of butter in the blood right now.”

Ghee—the clarified butter used in most Indian cooking—is wonderful stuff because it’s like plain butter, only better, stronger, silkier, and more powerful. It is the Lee Majors of butter, rebuilt and redesigned by Indian cooks for making incomparably ethereal sauces smooth and strong enough to hold the weight of a dozen spices without ever blunting or overpowering their kick.

But like uranium or the films of Jeremy Piven, ghee is best utilized or enjoyed in small, discreet doses. Like any butter, it makes everything it touches better, but can easily be overused.

My first plate of lamb rogan josh from Roti’s kitchen was swimming in ghee—covered with a thick layer of greasy red oil which no amount of stirring would dissipate. I could have drunk the butter off with a straw, and had I thought that might’ve helped the dish overall, I might’ve tried it—except that beneath all that ghee was just a weak, oddly flavorless onion and tomato gravy and a few chunks of lamb meat with the consistency of stew beef. The overall effect of the grease, the thick, dull sauce, and the meat put together was something like watching a lava lamp filled with melted butter in which globs of speckled sauce and chunks of lamb were set bobbing. And when it came to actually eating the rogan josh, I probably would’ve been better off cracking open my stoner college neighbor’s favorite Friday-night mood-lighting device and drinking whatever weird shit it is they fill lava lamps with.

The rogan josh wasn’t the only disappointment, either. I’d ordered potato vara and had gotten mashed-potato dumplings (which I expected), patted down with flour (which I also expected), then deep-fried for an hour and covered with a dusting of pencil shavings and salt (which I hadn’t really been looking for at all). The chicken pakora was an odd departure from the norm, not so much dipped in chickpea batter and fried (as is the custom), but lightly floured and then…served, near as I could tell. The thin strips of white meat were weirdly gritty, kissed in passing by a sprinkling of Indian spices having all the weight and passion of a smooch from someone’s aged aunt, and then served with a salad straight out of a Midwestern Lutheran potluck.

Because I am a classless savage, I like my pakora dipped in a little tamarind chutney. And maybe that would have improved mine, had Roti’s handmade version not somehow tasted like the base for a ketchup, plum sauce, tomato, and tamarind smoothie.

Needless to say, the ghee overdose didn’t kill me. But then I’ve spent years abusing my body, filling it with all manner of fatty foods, raw meats, and strange spices. Still, I barely got halfway through that bowl of lamb-and-butter soup before I had to throw in the towel, get the remainder boxed to go, and dump it in the nearest trash can. I didn’t even feel right offering it to the homeless guy on the corner asking people for their leftovers. I gave him the remains of my chicken pakora and potato vara instead. Those—while by no means good—were at least edible.

I went back to Roti (at a different hour on a different night of the week), ordered tandoori chicken, and got screwed again. It tasted like half-cooked chicken wings painted red and left too long over a tire fire. But I also had a decent raita (a simple yogurt sauce), a very good aloo saag with big slabs of potato, and a side of the kitchen’s namesake roti that I liked quite a lot—coming to the table warm and soft and smelling of fresh wheat bread.

Because the aloo saag had been good, I decided to go back a third time and try the saag paneer. Like tekka maki, moules et frites, or a cheeseburger, saag paneer is a benchmark dish: Served at virtually every Indian restaurant, it’s a perfect showcase of a kitchen’s skills. When done well, it’s a fragrant, light, smooth, delicious dish of spinach, yogurt, spices, and stiff homemade cheese. An ideal canvas for the interplay of ginger, onion, chili, garam masala, coriander, cumin, and turmeric, great Indian cooks can make a saag paneer so delicious that it could make a dedicated carnivore like me seriously consider the merits of vegetarianism.

A bad one, on the other hand, is just a reminder of everything that can go wrong when a cook is not paying attention—when a dozen or two ingredients completely get away from him and he ends up with a chunky, heavy, odd-smelling pile of spinach, onions, and cheese, bleeding ghee (once again) like it’d just been stabbed in the neck.

For one or two bites, I really thought the kitchen at Roti was on to something with an interesting, onion-heavy preparation of the classic dish. But before I’d gotten through my first serving (dumped over carroty-orange basmati rice to absorb the grease, at a place where the rice costs extra), I was already sick of the lumpy texture and unhappy with the way this classic spinach dish with onions had been turned into nothing more than a greasy, overspiced, muddled onion dish with spinach.

But the kitchen did manage to put together a good plate of chili paneer—sticks of tough, squeaky cheese dressed in a complicated sweet-and-sour sauce of garlic, onion, peppers, and (oddly) soy. Even though the prep for it showed some laziness in the kitchen (the onion unevenly cut; the julienned peppers still stuck together, tossed onto the plate in clumps, or not cut all the way through), the sauce and the paneer together were delicious, and it was presented well—with fans of carefully sliced apple and cucumber arranged around the edges of a shallow bowl filled with onions, peppers, and cheese.

As a third course, I ate a murg korma that again arrived with a slick of oil on top, but it was tasty enough that I had it packed to go, took it home, chilled it in the fridge, and then just dug the layer of clarified butter right off the top before reheating it—eating a lovely, gently spiced, creamy korma full of big pieces of chicken while standing in front of my microwave at 2 in the morning.

At this point—after three meals, competing versions of similar dishes, and more mango lassi than any man should drink in a single week—I had to make a decision. It had become obvious to me that there was no simple formula for getting a good meal at Roti. I couldn’t just say “avoid the curries” or “only order appetizers” or “don’t go on Sundays” or whatever. Neither had I found any secret for avoiding the bad plates. The saag was good one night, in one preparation, but almost inedible on another. A simple potato vara had been screwed up so badly I almost didn’t feel comfortable giving it to a homeless guy, but a relatively complicated murg korma had been good enough (after some tinkering) that I’d considered going back—even if only for it and a side of chili paneer.

But really, the only reason I was conflicted was that Roti is the first Indian restaurant I’ve been to in Seattle. I hated the idea that this might be the standard, that maybe Seattle’s Indian cooks all make their pakora without the benefit of a batter or their curries packed in ghee like a confit. Because Roti seemed to be doing everything right but the cooking, I was worried that maybe it just wouldn’t get any better than this.

Then I had a thought. I love Indian food. I’ve been eating it for as long as I can remember. If forced to give up one cuisine entirely, I’d let Chinese go before I’d forsake Indian food. I’d also swear to never touch another plate of bi bim bop, momo, borscht, or fufu before I’d say the same about a bowl of shrimp vindaloo.

And yet, if Roti were the only Indian restaurant in Seattle, or if it truly were the best available, I’d go a year without saag paneer rather than eat it at Roti again. I’d live without pakora and vara, and happily go the rest of my given days without another bite of rogan josh, if Roti’s were the only ones I could have.

Lucky for me, they’re not. One of the big benefits of a vibrant food scene is the ability for any eater to cut loose an underperforming restaurant—to turn his back on it with no guilt and no regrets. So the next time I find myself craving a warm, delicately spiced and scented bowl of saag paneer, I’ll skip Roti and simply move on down the hill, trying my luck at the next Indian restaurant I come across, or the next.

Price Check  Chicken pakora  $6.95  Chili paneer  $8.95  Potato vara  $5.50  Roti  $2.25  Tandoori chicken  $10.95  Murg korma  $13.95  Lamb rogan josh  $14.50  Saag paneer  $11.95