The building where Delhi Darbar opened last year has been home to a string of Indian restaurants – five of them, by my count, over the past seven years. Their failure to thrive can at least in part be blamed on the location, hidden behind a Mobil gas station on Airport Road.
Dharmender “Raj” Rai, Delhi Darbar’s owner, is confident that he can break that string. With more than 20 years of experience as a restaurant owner and manager in Virginia and North Carolina (including highly regarded local restaurants Saffron and Raaga), his confidence would appear to be well-founded.
But both times I visited Delhi Darbar, the dining room was nearly empty. Granted, we ate relatively early in the evening, leaving by around 7 p.m. Our waiter sounded almost apologetic when he explained that business typically picks up after 8 p.m., especially on weekends. “Our lunch buffet is popular with the RTP crowd, too,” he said.
Busy or not, Delhi Darbar is worth seeking out – especially, given that the Cary-Morrisville area has become increasingly dominated by restaurants specializing in southern Indian fare, if you’re craving the familiar curries and tandoori dishes of the north.
A surefire way to satisfy several of those cravings with a single order is the thali, a multi-course sampler offered in vegetarian and non-vegetarian versions. Or shoot the works with the Delhi Darbar Feast, a sort of thali on steroids that will serve two generously: tandoori chicken, chicken tikka masala, tandoori shrimp, lamb seekh kebab, chicken saag, lamb rogan josh, creamed lentils, rice, raita, bread, dessert and tea, all for $45. And by “generously,” I mean plan on taking home leftovers.
If you prefer to skip the guided tour and chart your own à la carte course, chicken 65 – moist nuggets of chicken deep-fried in a spice-reddened batter – are a fine point of departure. So are masala-sauced lamb seekh kebabs, and crunchy-crusted vegetable samosas. But for my money, karari bhindi takes the appetizer prize: lengthwise slivers of okra, fried to a delicately crisp turn, then tossed with sautéed red onions and tomatoes in a sheer, cilantro-spangled glaze of sauce.
The entree list gives a good accounting of the repertoire, with pretty much every northern Indian dish you can think of, and then some. Among the 50-some vegetarian and non-vegetarian listings, you’ll find – to name a few familiar favorites – butter chicken, lamb vindaloo, saag paneer, malai kofta and five variations on the biryani theme. Curries cover the spectrum from a pale, comparatively mild fish curry (tilapia or salmon) to a lamb rogan josh with a fiery, oil-slicked gravy redolent of cumin and chiles.
Spice-dusted tandoori prawns are another tempting argument for ordering à la carte. The same clay oven also turns out a fine loaf of naan, all blistery and glistening with ghee.
Navratan korma, a vegetarian classic whose name means “nine gems” (for the nine veggie, fruit and nut “gems” it’s said to contain), falls a few gems short of a treasure here. I’d skip this one, which appears to be little more than the generic frozen medley of peas, green beans and diced carrots in a surprisingly muted sauce. Opt instead for vegetable jalfrezi: cauliflower, carrots, tomatoes and onion in India’s moderately spicy answer to a sweet-and-sour sauce.
In many instances, your server will ask how spicy you’d like a particular dish prepared. You can count on it being a shade on the mild side of what you specify, but by no means wimpy.
You probably won’t be asked your spice preference, though, if you order the Bollywood chicken. According to Raj Rai, this house specialty dish – which the menu describes as “breast meat cooked with potatoes, pineapple, tomatoes, onions, garlic, ginger, coconut milk and exotic spices” – is so named because, like a Bollywood star, “it’s a little sweet, a little spicy.”
A few weeks ago, Rai doubled down on the Bollywood theme by introducing a new entertainment feature. On Saturday beginning at 8 p.m., laser lights and yards of colorful gauze transform the traditional Indian dining room into a space inspired by the clubs in Rai’s native New Delhi, with the owner himself (he also goes by the moniker “DJ Raj”) spinning Bollywood and Hollywood mix tracks.
Rai says that, in addition to being a lot of fun, these “Desi Saturday Nights” have been successful at spreading the word about his restaurant. Looks like those empty dining room nights might be a thing of the past.
962-B Airport Blvd., Morrisville
Atmosphere: traditional Indian
Noise level: low to moderate
Service: knowledgeable and attentive
Recommended: karari bhindi, samosas, chicken 65, Bollywood chicken, vegetable jalfrezi, thali
Open: Lunch and dinner daily.
Other: full bar; accommodates children; excellent vegetarian selection; parking in lot.
The N&O’s critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: ☆☆☆☆☆ Extraordinary ☆☆☆☆ Excellent. ☆☆☆ Above average. ☆☆Average. ☆ Fair.
The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $16. $$$ Entrees $17 to $25. $$$$ Entrees more than $25.