MORRIS COUNTY — On arrival at Rajni for the first time, you might think you had just entered a storefront, local eatery somewhere off the streets of Mumbai on your way to pick up an order of Chicken Biriyani. Rajni could certainly be described as a low-key, modest, unpretentious eatery where one would stop in for a casual, relaxing lunch or dinner, either alone, with family, or a group of friends. Nothing fancy, formal, or elegant here, just some genuine, delicious, homemade southern Indian cuisine. The kind of food craved by many discerning diners looking for that familiar taste from their homeland.
Rajni opened in 2011 and features truly authentic cuisine from the state of Tamil Nadu. Upon entry, you first encounter the shrine of Lord Ganesha, the Hindu elephant god who symbolizes wisdom, understanding, and a discriminating intellect that one must possess to attain perfection in life. A perfect symbolic introduction to the culinary experience within. The restaurant is named after a Tamil movie star, producer, and screenwriter, “Rajni” Kant. According to Rajni’s website, their uniqueness lies in recapturing the flavor of homemade food and ambiance. They tout their belief in the three pillars of Quality, Affordability, and Impeccable Service.
You may have passed Rajni a hundred times while traveling along Route 46 and never gave it a thought, as it is somewhat hidden alongside the rear of the small Meadow Plaza strip mall. Rajni does not face the highway, so you will have to keep an eye out for the blue signage leading into the parking lot. Once there you will find adequate off-street parking. As you pull up to their attractive brick and glass building you will see the cute little elephant in front.
As my foodie group started to arrive, the very friendly and hospitable staff warmly welcomed us. Our table was immediately prepared while we joked and bantered with Moses, the manager, and Yoga (Doctor) Guna, brother of the owner Jey Guna, who unfortunately was not available on this visit. As we found our seats and perused the extensive and unfamiliar menu, we all had questions for the staff, which they were happy to address politely and patiently.
We found the interior to be clean, organized, and surprisingly spacious; with comfortable looking, red leather booths lined along the walls, and well-spaced tables, covered with white plastic tablecloths arranged throughout the dining area. The offset tones of the yellow and brown walls, wood tiled floors, lofty ceiling lined with silver metal paneling, a few Indian pictures and artifacts, and a large screen TV complete the simple, casual, homey ambiance that is Rajni.
Large glass windows along the full length of one side of the restaurant keep the interior bright and airy. A smaller secondary room is located adjacent to the main dining room and looks like it would be perfect for a small gathering or business meeting.
Sadly, the once-popular buffet area, along the far wall, now sits unused because of pandemic concerns; hopefully, the buffet will once again become a feature of Rajni in the near future.
Rajni’s focus is on South/North Indian specialties, with a primary focus on South Indian cuisine. They also offer Indo-Chinese cuisine, a distinct fusion culinary style combining aspects of both Indian and Chinese food and flavors.
In fact, Indianized Chinese food is extremely popular throughout India. Spicy, rich, flavorful, and diverse is the way most people describe Indian food, regardless of which section of India we are talking about, but on my visit, I was interested in exploring the South Indian culinary style which is much spicier than its Northern neighbor. South Indian food is considered extremely healthy and is mostly vegetarian, but there are plenty of non-vegetarian accompaniments to deliciously complement your meal.
The generous use of chili and tamarind helps to make Southern dishes spicy hot and tangy. Also, rather than naan or roti, rice is heavily favored in Southern Indian food.
Northern Indian cuisine tends to be less spicy and uses milder to more moderate spices in their dishes. So, if you are new to this culinary style when ordering is mindful that the food can be quite spicy. Do not hesitate to inquire about the heat index of each dish and inform your waiter of your heat preference. Most novices to this cuisine, as am I, are generally much more familiar with Northern style Indian food, which leaves the Southern-style largely unexplored by most, which is too bad, as Indian food consists of a lot more than chicken tikka masala, vindaloo, and naan.
With the help of our server’s advice, we chose a variety of appetizers to share as a group. One by one, out came the Melagai Podi Idli; (a soft, pillowy steamed savory cake made from rice and lentil batter and a perfect complement to the assorted chutneys that it was served with); Karimeen Tawa Fry (a full pomfret fish grilled with onion, chili, and ginger sauce) which tasted delectable, delicate and slightly sweet with a nice texture, tender on the inside and crispy on the outside, with a gentle kick of heat; Fish-65 (Tilapia pieces marinated with chili paste and curry leaves) this was a crispy and tasty treat with boneless marinated fish that was deep-fried; Onion Pakora (fritters with mild spices and served with assorted chutneys) pieces of onion, battered in spices and deep-fried; and Chicken Chettinadu (boneless chicken cooked with Chettinad special sauces and coconut).
These were quite an interesting start to our exploration of this cuisine. The consensus of the group is that they enjoyed the interesting variety of tastes, textures, and spiciness of each of the individual dishes. All the dishes came with a selection of chutneys (dipping sauces that really enhanced every bite).
Our gluttonous appetites were fairly satiated after our appetizers, but now it was time to order our entrees. I selected, on my friend’s recommendation, the Kothu Parota Chicken (a South Indian popular street food delicacy prepared using parotta, egg, and chicken in a spicy sauce), parotta shredded into small pieces, stir-fried, and cooked with shredded or minced chicken and served with raita, a yogurt-based condiment to cool the palate, as this is a spicy dish. It is definitely worth trying. That friend went with the Kothu Parota -Lamb, which he loved.
Others in the group went with the Hyderabad Goat Dum Biriyani (spicy flavored basmati rice cooked with goat meat, with special Southern spices, then served with raitha and Rajni’s special salna sauce). This is a key dish in Hyderabadi cuisine; the Lamb Tikka Masala (Lamb cooked with a creamy tomato sauce, and a slightly spicy and earthy tasting dish). Several in the group chose the Chicken Dosa (a large, and I mean exceptionally large, a flavored crepe made from fermented rice batter and black lentils and filled with vegetables, chicken, onions, and crushed red pepper). They all thoroughly enjoyed their dosas.
With no room left for desserts, the staff was kind enough to pack up some complimentary Gulab Jamun (Cheese balls in a honey sauce) a beloved Indian dessert, for us to take along and enjoy at home. There are plenty of non-alcoholic Indian beverages and on the menu as well, including Madras coffee, Nilagiri Tea, and Lassi’s, but as usual, since Rajni is a BYOB, I brought along a complimentary beverage, in this case, some Kingfisher Beer, the most popular beer in India, and it certainly did go perfectly with the spiciness of the assorted dishes.
Overall, a fun, interesting, and enjoyable dining experience. Tasty food, friendly, hospitable service, and very reasonable prices. If you have not yet been to Rajni, and you enjoy Indian cuisine and a comfortable, casual atmosphere, I would suggest stopping by and giving them a try.
“Food is medicine, medicine is Food” (Unavu maruntu, maruntu unavu); Dine-in – Curbside pickup – No-contact delivery – BYOB. Off-Street Parking. Closes 3:00 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. Extensive modern online menu. All poultry and meat products are halal. Available for on-site dosa parties and catering.
Rajni Indian is located at 296 Route 46 West, Parsippany. Phone: (973) 396-8666. Website: http://www.rajnis.com/