Kailash Darji at Ras Vatika, Dominion Road. Photo/Michael Craig
Address: 596 Dominion Road, Mt Eden.
Opening hours: Tuesday to Saturday, noon to 8 p.m.
Ras Vatika is the epitome of cheap good humor. A true Dominion Rd bastion, serving Auckland’s best Indian street food for more than two
Kailash Darji cooks up Indian street food on Dominion Rd long before it became the go-to area for cheap ethnic meals. The 52-year-old is proud to be a pioneer. She saw, in the early 2000s, the influx of students from Asia triggering a rush for new restaurants to suit their tastes and budgets. Darji likes to think back to when ‘petrol was only 29c a liter and we sold thali for $5’.
While gasoline prices have increased tenfold, the price of Ras Vatika thali has simply tripled (today an average thali costs $15). Darji nevertheless apologizes. She says inflation forced her to raise prices recently, the first time she had done so in 10 years. However, Ras Vatika is undeniably one of the best places to eat in Auckland.
This cozy, no-frills restaurant has exposed brick walls and a tinkling soundtrack that Darji describes as “Indian music.” There’s seating for about 20, at a tap, and service is always with a smile (but also slow and a little distracted). It serves dozens of vegetarian dishes from all over India. The aforementioned thali, named after the platter on which its individual components are served, is a variety of curries, dahls, chutneys, raita, flatbreads and rice.
Darji’s most popular dish is masala dosa, a porous crepe made from fermented rice batter with a touch of fenugreek that is spread on a griddle and fried in ghee. The dosa are rolled up and stuffed with a lightly spiced mashed potato. Paper masala dosa ($12) is the crispier version; Mysore masala dosa ($15) is spicier and more spongy, as preferred in its namesake city; the buttery masala dosa ($14) is, as you’d expect, butterier. All come with fiery helpings of lentil soup and a much-loved ramekin of soothing coconut chutney.
Then there is a solid selection of Poori ($8.50-$10). These little disks of unleavened dough swell into airy balls on contact with boiling oil. They are filled with tangy tamarind sauce, puffed wheat, chickpeas, cilantro, boiled potatoes, yogurt, fresh tomatoes and chutney. Samosa chat ($10) is made with chopped samosas topped with a similar mixture to the one inside the Poori. Uttapam ($10-$12) are a bit like crumpets. Made with the same dough as dosa, but cooked to be fattier and softer, topped with your choice of tomato, onion or paneer. Chole bhature ($15) is a lemony chickpea (chole) curry served with a sourdough version of Poori (bhature).
Growing up in India’s northern coastal state of Gujarat, Darji had vague ideas of becoming a housewife. But she married a man whose dream was to immigrate to New Zealand and open a restaurant. The couple arrived here in 1991. At first, Darji worked in other people’s restaurants – learning both cooking and English from scratch. In 1994, when Darji was 24, she and her husband opened a small Indian take-out restaurant on Dominion Rd. In 2000, they climbed the rungs — and the ladder — to open Ras Vatika.
Then Darji’s husband fell ill. As she took care of their business more and more, there was no more time for the housekeeper. Unfortunately, in 2006, her husband passed away. Darji found solace in work. Calming, repetitive kitchen tasks and kind customers kept it going, she says. These days, you’ll find her dining out six days a week. A photo of her husband, looking serious in a white shirt, sits next to the eftpos machine.
If it seems like this review has taken a dark turn, make no mistake: Ras Vatika is Darji’s happy place. It’s a happy place. The bells jingle happily as soon as the door opens. A large painting of mystical guru Sai Baba hangs in the kitchen. Darji has a discreet tattoo on his wrist, a symbol representing his favorite Hindu deity.
“I always feel relaxed because Shiva takes care of me,” she smiles. Darji’s mum, who joined her daughter in New Zealand in 2004, is usually at the restaurant joking with customers from Gujarat, some of whom have been frequenting Ras Vatika for more than 20 years.
I myself have eaten there for at least 10 years. Darji’s reliable food, serene presence and heartfelt goodbyes – “Have a lovely evening”, she calls as she leaves – are all very enjoyable.